The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 6th, 2005

A few good (brawny) men could pacify our schools

The apathy of the British public is mysterious. Last week’s headlines about education should have driven people into a fury: “1.5m children denied decent education”; “More than one in 10 schools failing, says Ofsted”; “Schools crisis as discipline standards fall in classrooms”; “Curbs on truancy fail to cure school absentee problems”; “£885m blitz fails to get truants back into lessons ”.

The detail behind the headlines is worse and still more depressing. If anything ought to arouse public passion it is the shameful failure of education and the blighted hopes of millions of children, not to mention the damage to society as a whole.

There is an undeniable mass of evidence that British state schools aren’t working. Of course there are some that are good, or good enough. But the failures are extraordinary. In last week’s Ofsted report, David Bell, the chief inspector of schools in England, revealed that 40% of secondary school pupils, nearly 1.5m children, are not getting a decent education, and are “capable of much, much more”.

The proportion of schools where teaching was “only satisfactory” or unsatisfactory had risen slightly to just over 25%. Of 10,000 schools visited since 2001 a tenth had made unsatisfactory, poor or very poor progress.

The proportion of officially failed schools placed in the special measures category rose by nearly a fifth in a year. As for disruptive behaviour in the classroom, only one in three secondary schools was judged to have acceptable standards of behaviour — a worsening of the situation of five years ago.

There was a sharp rise in the percentage of schools where discipline was unsatisfactory or worse, and levels of good behaviour were at their lowest since Labour came to power. These findings are astonishing, especially considering the high priority new Labour promised to give to education, and the huge sums it has thrown at it.

It is an achievement of dome-like proportions to spend £885m since 1997 on measures to improve school attendance without making the slightest dent on the rate of truancy. The rate of absences from school — including absence with permission — has fallen by one percentage point. That is £885m of your money, torn up and scattered to the winds.

The true results of this disaster are plain to see. Last summer Tony Blair was forced to admit that it was indeed a “scandal” that one in four children left primary school without being able to read or count properly. Last December the National Audit Office reported that most school-leavers lacked the literacy and numeracy skills they needed to participate fully in the modern economy. An international survey found that the UK had a higher proportion of adults with poor literacy and numeracy than 13 other developed countries.

The Confederation of British Industry made much the same point, calling it a “national scandal” that leaves employers to “pick up the pieces and the bill” and pointing out that 60% of teenagers leave school without even a grade C in GCSE maths and English. Meanwhile, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has repeatedly approved lowering the pass mark for the national standard in English for 11-year-olds “to maintain standards”. Last year it was cut to 41; in 2002 it was 49. Almost half of universities and (according to the CBI) one in three companies feel obliged to give school-leavers remedial classes in reading and writing.

Need I go on? Government claims about rising standards in schools are ludicrous. How can we possibly have arrived at such a sorry point? More importantly, what, if anything, can be done? There are so many factors, most of them intractable — too few teachers, poorly qualified teachers, mixed ability teaching, excessive “inclusion” of children with severe problems, multiple language problems, disruptive children, bad homes, inadequate parents, absent parents, morale brought low by a bossy but incompetent government and its tangles of red tape, inadequate police support and a culture of low expectation in many schools.

Bad behaviour is one of the most universal problems; teachers cannot teach in a 21st century Bedlam cum Tower of Babel, in fear for their own safety.

Ruth Kelly, the new education secretary, has suddenly come out with a cunning plan of zero tolerance. Yet it seems only days since her predecessor, Charles Clarke, boldly announced his cunning plan to make all schools take their “fair share” of classroom thugs and wreckers, if only to ensure that not just some but all lessons everywhere are undermined. That’s equality, at least. Which, in its usual cynical vacillation, does Labour mean? If either? Zero tolerance makes common sense and would involve removing the school wreckers altogether, to the best of all possible sin bins. But neither could possibly succeed without important changes in the law and in the culture of paranoid anxiety that surrounds children.

I don’t believe in corporal punishment. But the reaction against it has gone to such extremes that you cannot, literally, lay a finger on a child. You will be suspected of sexual motives or of unacceptable aggression. Either way you will be in serious legal trouble. Children are well aware of this and exploit it skilfully.

Yet it is quite impossible to deal with aggressive, semi-feral children without some physical contact, whatever the risk of abuse. There are times when it is right for an adult to restrain a child, perhaps slightly roughly in extremes, or even to hug a child; both are necessary sometimes for authority and discipline and to provide the limits and the encouragement that troubled children need.

Some time ago I heard of a successful project in a sink school in Washington, where SAS-style soldiers were brought in both to be role models for unhappy, fatherless boys and to provide basic discipline, if only by the force of their physical presence; I remember thinking it could never happen here, because of the law.

In the communal garden where I live, one bad boy terrorised all the younger children for months while their parents stood around powerless to stop him for fear of the law. It wasn’t until a brave dad clipped the boy round the ear, to general astonishment, that the problem was solved — illegally. If community responsibility means anything that ought to have been legal.

On the same principle it ought to be possible for two or three teenage thugs to be marched forcibly out of a classroom without the threat of legal action. There ought to be more big brawny men around in schools, perhaps as classroom assistants in the absence of many male teachers, to be bigger than the playground bullies and able to take them on. Teachers need threats and sanctions, not least teachers in sin bins.

It’s true that when discipline in schools was strict it was sometimes excessive. It’s true there were abuses. But I often wonder whether the abuses of today — by schoolchildren against other schoolchildren and even against teachers — aren’t just as bad and more generally disastrous. This will not change unless the law is changed.