Some thoughts on turning around tough schools

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Near the end of December, 2000, I was sat in the staffroom listening to my head of department speak. After he had finished his introduction, he invited me up to the front where he produced a flak jacket which he insisted I wear before handing me a plank of wood with a large nail driven through it. I would need these at my new school, he explained.

I was moving to a school with a bad reputation in order to take up the post of second in science. I wanted to make a difference – I think we all do – but some colleagues had strongly counselled me against the move, suggesting that it was a bridge too far.

A term after I joined my new school, at the age of 25, I found myself head of science following the departure of the previous one. I had to manage a daily draft of science supply teachers because we were never fully staffed; once, I had to send one home because he smelled of alcohol. My school’s reputation meant that it was hard to get good teachers to work there. That was the kind of situation we were dealing with.

Not only was behaviour extremely challenging, at times it was unsafe. I had a lab on the ground floor with a door one side and a fire escape door the other. One student who never seemed to go to lessons would interrupt mine by opening the door and shouting, “Where’s that brer?” On one occasion, I opened the fire escape door, probably to ask some students outside to go to their lesson, when a heavy iron retort stand missed my head by a few centimetres. It had been thrown out of the window of the lab above.

I remember teaching a lesson about the kidneys in which I turned around to indicate to the class where they are located. One student – let’s call him Jack – shouted out, “We don’t want to see your fat arse!” When I reported this to my line manager, he commented, “Oh, Jack will be fine once he gets to know you. And anyway, I wouldn’t describe your arse as fat; I would say it’s quite pert.” – this was clearly a very long time ago. Needless to say, nothing ever came of the incident just as nothing ever came of the time when a child in a balaclava threw a lump of ice at one of my teachers.

In those days, I would have appreciated a reporter writing a piece on the school and how it was failing its students, the vast majority of whom just wanted to learn – were desperate to learn – but who were not being provided with the right environment in which to do so. An article in the local paper might have acted as a circuit breaker, forcing the school to make changes. But there never seems to be any interest in such stories. A school quietly gains a poor reputation and middle class parents figure out that it’s best to send their own kids to the school down the road. That is that.

Nevertheless, over time my school gradually improved. I argued strongly for a tougher and more coherent discipline policy. We gained a new headteacher and the school was rebuilt under the private finance initiative, one result of this being a site that was far easier to manage. We set-up senior staff patrols during lesson times – “Is everything to your satisfaction, Miss Brown?” – and a centralised detention system. Any student who refused to attend detention would be picked-up and escorted to see the headteacher by one of the assistant headteachers. By this stage, I was an assistant headteacher and so I was involved in the process, as I was with the limited number of students who we ultimately excluded for violent or persistently disruptive behaviour.

It was far from a ‘no excuses’ system but it was much improved from when I first started working there. We seemed better able to recruit and retain good staff and this was probably because of the behaviour policy. And improvements showed in a rise in Key Stage Three results – before these tests were abolished – and in GCSE results. I cannot prove it but I am personally convinced that these gains were due to the tightened behaviour policy; teaching methods hardly changed the whole time I was there.

This is not just meaningless data. This is not evidence that you can dismiss as ‘neoliberal performativity’. These were real kids with ambitions and hopes whose prospects were better because of what we had achieved. Those children who were desperate to learn were now receiving more of what they deserved; quality teaching in lessons with far less disruption.

That is why I am wary of hate campaigns against schools that attempt to improve behaviour. You read some pretty lurid stuff on Twitter and I certainly don’t agree with every policy I read about. However, I have learnt to be cautious. On investigating one claim that a school was forcing students to wear signs around their necks to shame them for not having correct uniform, I discovered that the truth was a little different; once a student had been spoken to about uniform, they were given a lanyard to wear in order to prevent every other members of staff from hassling them about it. This is nothing other than a perfectly rational way to manage the situation.

Yet there are plenty of armchair warriors lining up to condemn schools, and headteachers in particular, for strengthening their behaviour policies. Often, these commentators haven’t taught for as much as five minutes in a challenging school or are people who have moved on from teaching. They delight in explaining how personally rebellious they are – oh, please – and, at their very worst, they throw around Nazi jibes.

I have a challenge for these critics. They should get together and try and turn around a tough school themselves. They can deploy their ideologies as they see fit, putting them to the test. And we will all watch from the sidelines and judge their efforts.


18 thoughts on “Some thoughts on turning around tough schools

  1. I’ll happily admit that I’ve never taught in a genuinely “challenging” school. But I’ve seen them, I’ve tutored many kids from them, I’ve taught plenty of kids who’ve transferred from them, and countless colleagues who HAVE had the experience of teaching in a difficult school have gone on at considerable length about it. All their accounts basically tallied, and the thing that always emerges from these stories is that the majority (usually the vast majority) of parents at such schools are desperate for the behaviour/discipline to improve, but that it is a rare principal who is prepared to take on the few hostile (and, more importantly, litigious) parents who spoil it for everyone else.

    Unfortunately, in the era of social media and instant manufactured outrage, it’s probably harder still for principals in such situations. The whole Punchbowl Boys saga in my neck of the woods was a good example; to this day it’s very hard to discern how to apportion the blame for that whole mess.

  2. Another thing that comes to mind from reading this are primary school teachers that feel like they can comment authoritatively on discipline at high schools.

  3. I’ll be the contrarian. While Jon Ronson does a great job of explaining why we shouldn’t use the internet for public shaming that does not mean there should be no public comment.

    I read The Michaela Way and thought the people running the show seem to be truly trying to put the students’ interests first and don’t claim to know all the answers. I was sure it would take another experienced expert to make a useful critique of what they do.

    But when you read about the cases of disciplinary weirdness such as the sick bucket it begs the question what stops some person getting into a position of authority and abusing it either through incompetence or malevolence. When people seem so blind to how they will come across to adults you have to wonder how well they communicate with students.

    The idea that the only response to something you question is you must go out and try to build your own misses that there is a lot to be gained by having people explain themselves.

    1. You are talking about an individual headteacher who is currently the subject of an internet hate campaign where he is being compared to a Nazi etc. Are you certain that you have enough accurate information to comment? Do you think this will be constructive?

      1. “If you are ever in doubt, if you every [sic] think Charter rules are too demanding, just imagine the opposite and how awful that would be”.

        False dichotomy right there.

        “Instead of deliberate politeness, deliberate rudeness, instead of deliberate self-control we’d have complete selfishness.”

        Problem is, it’s not “deliberate” politeness he’ll be getting, let alone “authentic” politeness.

        “Instead of deliberate, focussed learning where every second is used efficiently we’d have lesson after lesson of pupils ignoring their teachers and leaving school after eleven years of compulsory education knowing [I can’t read through this bit without imagining the voice saying it getting increasingly screechy and hysterical] very little, barely able to read or count, and failing in their exams.”


        “We work hard and we are kind. We’re Charter.”

        THAT is where the references to “1984” come in.

        Sorry Greg, but if you can read the GYCA Induction Programme from start to finish and find it completely reasonable, I’ll need to check to see that you and I are actually reading the same document ….

  4. Greg if you think my previous comment was too specific and that once a witch hunt is underway further attention is unhelpful please delete it.

    My point is more general. I think there is room for people who are not actually trying to turn around a tough school to comment on the approach taken. This should be done with care because we don’t have a clear picture. But to say it shouldn’t be done at all except by those directly involved presents a false dichotomy you have to be there to comment or you have a witch hunt.

    As I mentioned I think the Michaela people do a great job of saying this is what and how we do this and why. My point is that when an institution wants to take what might appear extreme measures they should be open and expect to have to explain it.

    1. People have a right to comment on anything, including school behaviour policies. However, I would be very wary of commenting on individual schools. If specific allegations are made then the school usually cannot comment publicly due to confidentiality. This means that the account we hear, and that we will be commenting on, will necessarily be partial. The point where I suggest critics show us their own model is not really one about saying that people shouldn’t have any kind of view unless they’ve lived it, it is more a cry from frustration. These schools are difficult to turn around so if there is a better way then let’s see it.

      If you want to know what happens when a witch hunt forms around an individual school then these links might be of interest:

      1. Using Vogon tactics is just cruel. Time for Luke to read Lord of the Flies and watch A Clockwork Orange again to remember why he might like some rules for other people.

        But I think this is like anti-vaxers. Some people will think what they want to think and nothing can penetrate that. Rather there can be a conversation among reasonable people about what seems okay and what seems questionable.

      2. Oh, my. They’ve launched an attack on the school using … poetry.


        Quick, please, contact the UN Security Council. What will they use next – wet lettuces and marshmellows? The cads!

  5. “I have a challenge for these critics. They should get together and try and turn around a tough school themselves. They can deploy their ideologies as they see fit, putting them to the test.”

    Templestowe College did just that, but didn’t need to publish the farcical diatribe that Yarmouth came up with. Nor did they go down the authoritarian path that Michaela did.

    Turns out that consistent behaviour policies, cultivating a calm atmosphere of respect FOR EVERYONE, and encouraging students to think about and take control of their own learning has a positive effect on the whole school environment. Who would have thought?!?

      1. I’m seriously not sure what you mean by “insulting”. Describing Charter’s document as a “diatribe” and Michaela as “authoritarian”? Certainly not offensive. If you disagree with the terms I use then challenge them on their merits or lack of them, as you see it. If you think that my ironic tone (which I genuinely intend to be amusing as well as challenging) has crossed a line, then explain to me where you see the line and I’ll adjust accordingly.

        But if your response to my challenge is censorship, then just be aware that I’m putting it out there – I see it as censorship.

  6. “I do not approve of demonising named schools.”

    I’m not “demonising” them, Greg, I described the document that one school (okay, I won’t name it) published and to the “path” that another school decided to take. I find it interesting that even though you assert you don’t approve of demonising named schools, in the comments section of that very same post, you linked to a tweet of a poem about one of those very schools.

    Let me be clear: I’m totally fine with your raising the discussion about these schools, and you frequently have good points to put forward, but to cloak them in “wink wink nudge nudge I’m not going to name them BUT” starts to veer the discussion into unpleasant territory. If you’re concerned about the tone of the discussion in the media and online about these particular schools, I would prefer that you “call a spade a spade” and tackle the issue head-on.

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