We don’t need no thought control

The UK government sees schools as a weapon in its war against feckless parents and feral children.

David Perks

Topics Politics

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Like a bizarre twist in a Philip Pullman novel, the educational fraternity has been fearfully scurrying around after news broke that the new education minister is a member of a mysterious religious sect. But the revelation that Ruth Kelly belongs to Opus Dei has shed no light on her suitability as custodian of the nation’s schools. It is likely that she is more of a political pragmatist than a missionary doing God’s work. Rather than trying to banish sex education from the classroom (1), the new education minister has bad behaviour on her mind.

On the face of it, Kelly is right to be concerned about indiscipline in our schools. If David Bell, the government’s chief inspector for schools, is to be believed, behaviour in English schools is in decline. In his recent report (2), Bell declared that nine per cent of English schools are failing to maintain basic standards of discipline and behaviour, compared with five per cent a year ago (3). A National Audit Office report also criticised the government’s effectiveness in tackling truancy in schools (4). The stubborn refusal of truancy rates to decline over the past eight years despite the government spending £885million on attendance initiatives, has brought into sharp focus the 50,000 pupils a day who bunk off.

It is easy to criticise Ruth Kelly’s sudden focus on school discipline as crude electioneering (5). Her pronouncement of a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ on poor behaviour was a direct response to the Tory Party’s election publicity, with an unsightly scramble to see who can sound toughest on schools in the run-up to the election.

Yet now the gloves are coming off, what is revealed is a deep-seated lack of belief in education as an end in itself. Instead, the government sees schools as a blunt weapon in a war against what it sees as feckless parents and feral children. Education policy has become part of a wider attempt to control people’s behaviour. The most important recent policy initiatives in regard to education are located in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003 (6). The act gives head teachers the authority to fine parents and issue parenting orders forcing them to attend counselling. More recently, schools have been given responsibility for policing pupils’ diet by waging war on chips and fizzy drinks. Policing behaviour has completely overshadowed education as the government’s priority for schools.

Schools are being used to try and hold fragmenting communities together. Many are opening classroom doors to innumerable social workers, counsellors and the police. The pressure on schools to act as vehicles for solving street crime, drug taking and controlling wayward parents is misplaced and itself a source of tension. Only a few head teachers have adopted the voluntary random drug testing suggested by the previous education minister, Charles Clarke – some head teachers understandably look upon this as a confrontational and authoritarian approach to take with young people. However, this is exactly the direction in which schools are being pushed.

For teachers, the classroom has become a problem of control rather than education. The only training most teachers get these days is on basic behaviour control techniques. Teachers are being told to focus on the petty aspects of misbehaviour, such as poor uniform and playing with mobile phones, and so on. Adopting a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ approach, teachers are expected to patrol the schoolyard giving out yellow cards like deranged football referees.

Tackling the poor behaviour of pupils has always been a function of schools. Yet to make behaviour the central focus of education policy makes it clear that politicians have no real interest in education for its own sake. The collapse of belief in the intrinsic value of subject knowledge has created a vacuum at the centre of education policy into which politicians can bring their agenda. It is revealing that the Tomlinson Report published last year suggested reducing the core content of GSCEs dramatically, and emphasised work-based learning as opposed to academic study (7). Tomlinson is just reflecting the educational establishment’s lack of a positive vision of what education can achieve. In this climate it is not surprising that teachers hold little authority over young people.

Attendance has now been raised to new heights in the agenda of every school. Pupils are more likely to be celebrated for just coming to school, with head teachers being encouraged to give prizes for good attendance. When you send little Rebecca to school you may discover her returning home with a cash reward if she manages a whole term without any absences (8). Even the sixth form, the traditional retreat of the academic student, has succumbed. The extension of the educational maintenance award (EMA) scheme across the country in 2004 has meant that instead of dealing with intellectual questions from aspiring academics at the end of class, a typical sixth-form lesson ends with the teacher filling out a plethora of EMA claims forms (9).

I suspect a sizeable percentage of sixth form students are now just turning up for the cash – £30 a week. It is enough to make me wonder why I bother turning up to school myself.

David Perks is a science teacher in South London.

(1) ‘Teach abortion, say staff’, Joseph Lee and Adi Bloom, Times Eductational Supplement, 4 February 2005

(2) The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools 2003/2004, Office for Standards in Education

(3) ‘Schools crisis as discipline standards fall in classrooms’, Tony Halpin and Alexandra Blair, The Times, 3 February 2005

(4) Improving school attendance in England (.pdf 976 KB), National Audit Office, 4 February 2005

(5) ‘Schools must take fair share of rowdy pupils – but not yet’, Tony Halpin and Alexandra Blair, The Times, 2 February 2005

(6) Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003

(7) Department for Education and Skills Working Group on 14-19 Reform website

(8) Good Practice section of the Department for Education and Skills School Attendance website

(9) What is Education Maintenance Allowance? section of the Department for Education and Skills Education Maintenance Allowance website

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Topics Politics


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