Where is the heart?

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Where is the heart?

  1. Peter Wilby certainly got a good roasting from self-righteous Guardian readers in the comments section for not taking Rachel and Barry to task, although admittely a lot of ire was directed at the ‘evil’ academies system. It’s strange how the best way to show ‘heart’ is to spew out as much bile as possible.

    Turning around a dysfunctional school where behaviour is in the lower reaches of Terry Haydn’s 10-point scale is indeed problematic, especially if the head is overly sensitive to the kind of criticism that Barry Smith received. It’s never easy deciding which teachers have to go; you can never be entirely sure if they are just paying lip-service to your principles. It only takes one or two suckers for a sob story to blow the whole game-plan sky high, and no doubt a few teachers will be loath to give up on collaborative learning and all the other bollocks endorsed by the EEF. On the other hand, a lot of seemingly mediocre teachers will blossom once they find out how much easier it is to work in a ‘no excuses’ school, and especially when they find out how enthusiatically pupils respond to them. You don’t have to spend more than ten minutes in such a school before you understand that the accusations about them lacking a ‘heart’ are nothing more than ignorant calumny.

    This said, It’s not so hard starting such a school from start, especially as we now have enough of them to generate a pool of teachers eager to be on the ground floor of a new venture. And the movement has its own inbuilt advantage in that no teacher who has ever taught in one would dream of going back to the kind of school where you’re expected to wear your heart on your sleeve.

  2. In by far the worst Y8 group I have ever taught, a girl once became really sick in the lesson and vomited on the floor. This happened while I was challenging extremely unruly behaviour in another corner, on top of the constant low-level disruption displayed by a large proportion of the class. The girl must have felt unwell for a while as other students told me she had been apathetic for quite some time.

    I felt horrible. If I had had the mental and emotional capacity to take more notice of calm and quiet students in the class, I might have picked up her apathy, her paleness, and her worried face. In a calmer situation, she might have had the courage to speak to me and leave the room, not having to fear comments and negative attention from others. It also makes me wonder how many other children feel unwell during lesson for all kinds of reasons, and are surrounded by noise and disorder.

    The behaviour management system in my school worked ok and was followed by most staff, but was overall not robust enough for these challenging classes. A robust, no-nonsense, and presumably more ‘heartless’ behaviour policy would have protected a vulnerable student in that situation, and it would have enabled me to show compassion and empathy where it actually mattered. Instead, I was putting my heart in negotiating basic expectations with pupils who misbehaved out of pure mischief*, while being heartless and helpless in the face of a real problem.

    * this is my interpretation and a high statistical probability. If there was some unresolved trauma in the lives of those pupils causing them to act out this way, then this would need to be resolved at a different time in place, and ideally by another person with a qualification for emotional trauma and severe behaviour difficulties. It is my job to teach a lesson to up t0 32 pupils, and to monitor them for signs of acute illness or safeguarding issues along the way. I and my cooperative pupils are not punching bags for unresolved problems, and more support needs to be given to those that cannot behave in large groups of children.

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