Grammar schools do not have a monopoly on good order and discipline

The piece by Sir Michael Wilshaw in today’s Daily Telegraph goes a long way to explain why I started life as a Liberal and became a founder member of the Liberal Democrats.

It is not that I am against his basic tenant that schools needed to be places of order and control, where every student is both encouraged and able to develop to the best of their abilities. Indeed, I do think that the degree of order and control expected in schools should be ingrained in pupils so as to extend beyond the school gates to include the manner in which young people go to and from school and I would certainly ban mobile phones from any classroom where I was a teacher.

Rather, my concerns are that the Chief inspector seems to equate the ideal standards of behaviour with grammar schools and by inference at least that teachers in other state schools have lower standards that Ofsted must inspect out of existence.

I am not sure what the business editor the Daily Telegraph thought if he read the piece over his cornflakes, but I wonder if he will get a call from the CBI on Tuesday asking where the skills businesses want such as self-reliance and confidence are to be found in the Wilshaw world of pupils sitting in serried rows and bowing and scraping whenever an adult enters the classroom. As a teacher I never saw the point of that unless the person entering was a really distinguished visitor. As the doors were at the back of the room, any class I was teaching didn’t notice a visitor until they were well into the room anyway, by which time standing up waste just a waste of time. Presumably Michael Wilshaw would make the wearing of academic gowns mandatory to distinguish teachers from teaching assistants and other support staff, even though they are all vital members of the team in a school.

In the grammar school I attended there were lots of examples of behaviour Michael Wilshaw won’t accept. At one point the sixth form excluded a teacher from a lesson by lining up the desks between the window and the door to prevent him entering; leaving him stranded in the corridor. At another time pupils set fire to waste bins in the playground. On the other hand the school had an outstanding record for drama and sport. I don’t know what HMI thought of the school because in those days reports weren’t made public; publication only started in the 1980s.

In my experience, as a pupil, a teacher and teacher trainer, it is the quality of the staff that makes a school. That is the reason why I spend so much time worrying about teacher supply. We need teaching to be a profession of choice that attracts high quality staff at all levels. It is in schools with poor quality staff that the invisible line between order and chaos edges ever closer to chaos. The same happens when teacher turnover in a school rises too quickly, as often happens when there are teacher shortages and plenty of job opportunities.

Mr Wilshaw is right to remind us that not all learning is fun, but wrong to select the examples he chooses. I recall a great lesson by one of my students teaching tables with a beanbag being thrown around the class. Answer the question and you got the chance to ask the next one to another pupil. I guess you can do the same with computers today and monitor where pupils regularly don’t give the correct answer. It was a stimulating learning experience and the pupils knew their tables.

If the Daily Telegraph piece is part of the Tory attempt to bring back grammar schools, then they should think again. The world has moved a long way from that of the 1940s, even if the Conservatives haven’t. Education is a right for all and not the privilege for the few.


4 thoughts on “Grammar schools do not have a monopoly on good order and discipline

  1. A grammar school ethos, eh? My local grammar has a laid-back approach to minor uniform infringements and girls wearing make up (tolerated as long as it’s not obvious). Mobile phones are theoretically banned but the pupils still take them to school but keep them switched off and out of sight during lessons. However, they’re used (discreetly) at break.

    The school has the sense to realize a blanket ban on mobiles wouldn’t work – the pupils would still bring them to school. But their use in lessons is forbidden. Pupils who take advantage would be disciplined – not likely because rocking the boat might result in a blanket ban.

    Would Sir M approve? Unlikely, since he sees himself as a strict disciplinarian – ‘a battler and a bruiser’. The violence of his imagery is telling – one can (and should be able to) instil discipline without throwing weight around which is, in any case, difficult if you’re a tiny, female teacher (or even a tiny male one) among 6ft boys.

    • Janet,

      what annoyed me was the implication that only grammar schools had a study-related ethos and comprehensive were full of those that didn’t care unless they were like Mr wilshaw was. I fel this was a return to the woodhead era. But, perhaps that’s the price of a Tory government.


  2. Cue inspectors asking for the mobile phone policy. And if the policy doesn’t ban phones, then the school could expect a poor Ofsted. Yet phones could be used as a classroom aid with teacher permission. Can’t spell something or don’t know what it means? Need info or up-to-date stats? Look it up on the phone (more portable than a dictionary and likely to be carried by all children, unlike dictionaries).

    Wristwatch computers are going to make things more difficult for schools to police phone use. Better to have a sensible, practical policy (which might even accept their use in certain circumstances) than ban them.

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