Back in London in the Noughties, I worked at a challenging school that managed to turn itself around. I’ve just read two pieces that resonate with me on the basis of that experience and I wanted to point you to them.
The first piece is by Tom Bennett and is about exclusions. He makes a good point that we would all like to see fewer exclusions, but simply mandating fewer exclusions does not tackle the issues that lead to them in the first place. However, it’s Tom’s metaphor of the Rubik’s Cube that hit home: Complex systems such as schools are like Rubik’s Cube in that it is relatively easy to get the same colour on one side, but when you try and do this for other sides of the cube, you end up disrupting the first side. Ultimately, however, the Rubik’s Cube has an algorithm that you can follow in order to solve it. Improving schools is a far more artful process with no set of steps you can take that will fix everything.
This last point is why academics and other onlookers can adhere to absolutist principles whereas school leaders have to deal with a much messier and complex reality.
Nothing illustrates this divide more than the reaction to Great Yarmouth Charter Academy (GYCA) in the U.K. when it introduced a new behaviour policy under a new headteacher, Barry Smith. There were press reports and an overwrought and condemnatory Twitter storm when a copy of a behaviour briefing to parents emerged that suggested students who feel sick should vomit in a bucket rather than leave class.
To many, this line proved the evil nature of so-called ‘no excuses’ schools. One Australian researcher even quoted it in a peer-reviewed, academic paper, with the comment:
“The neo-traditional teacher favours teacher-centred instruction, deplores inclusion and differentiation, and promotes strict whole-school ‘no excuses’ discipline policies modelled on an extreme interpretation of behaviourism.” [sic]
A tongue-in-cheek comment intended to highlight the importance of staying in class was seized upon by the humourless in order to condemn a model of school improvement that they are ideologically opposed to.
This episode is explored in a Guardian article in which Peter Wilby interviews Dame Rachel de Souza, the head of the academy chain that GYCA is a part of. After the uproar, the wording of the behaviour guide was changed and yet, commendably, all involved at GYCA appear to have otherwise stood firm amidst the barrage; a credit to the leadership of Smith and de Souza.
The Guardian article also offers other insights for those wishing to turn around challenging schools. I was particularly taken with the all-or-nothing approach that de Souza took as a head in Luton. The messy reality there was that an entire cohort of students had never been taught maths by a qualified maths teacher, and the messy solution was to place them all in the school hall with only maths specialist de Souza could find. There is no manual for this stuff and high principle doesn’t always help to solve such problems.
Teachers were also sent by de Souza to get kids out of bed in the morning. I can imagine the reaction on Twitter if GYCA announced they were doing that. Well-meaning commentators would wonder if some students needed extra sleep because they were unwell or because they had a late night looking after their disabled parents. Is it not heartless to impose a one-size-fits all approach to waking children up? The assumption, as is always the assumption in these discussions, is that such policies would be pursued in an unbending and uncaring way.
According to The Guardian, exam results in the Luton school ‘soared’. We can only imagine what that meant for the life chances of the children involved. There’s the caring. There’s the heart.