The sink school

I once worked in a ‘sink’ school. Let me explain what that means.

We did not achieve great results for children at the time. This resulted in the school being under-subscribed. Parents would try to get their children into other local schools rather than come to ours. The parents who were best at avoiding us were the savvy ones and the wealthy ones who could afford property nearer to other schools. So we drew mainly from nearby social housing schemes.

The fact that we were under-subscribed meant that we would tend to take students who had been excluded from other schools. If we then ended-up excluding them, there were few places left for them to go. The school was certainly diverse but it was not the model of comprehensive education that had been promised to British taxpayers in the 1960s because the demographics were heavily skewed to families with low household incomes.

What would you do about such a situation?

One option might be a coercive one. You could prevent schools from excluding altogether and then my sink school would not have had to take these students from other schools. But do you really want that? Even those who think current rates of exclusion are too high would generally accept that there are some circumstances that warrant it. Should a teacher have to go back into a classroom to teach a student who has physically assaulted him or her?

Setting that question aside, once you’ve banned exclusions, you will still have the problem of parents moving houses to escape from schools they perceive to be bad. And banning exclusions might make that situation worse. As a parent, I would do anything to avoid sending my child to a school where violence was a part of daily life and I would feel pretty justified in doing so. If a child had been violent and not been excluded as a result of this then I might conclude that it was a school where violence was accepted.

So perhaps we need to bus children around. Perhaps we need to use a lottery to determine which schools children go to and then force them to go to the one that has been selected for them. It is possible. But many parents might then choose to go private. You might even see a boom in private sector schooling, perhaps of the low-cost, no-frills kind. The sink school would still not be comprehensive.

So you would probably need to ban private schools.

As a policy, this seems an unlikely one to take to voters, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine you do and you win an election. To summarise, your policy would compel children to go to specific schools that the state has decided they must go to and allow no opt-out from this. Is that what you want?

But there is another way to fix a sink school.

You can start to tackle poor behaviour, not just with sanctions – although they are a necessary backstop – but also with increased resources. That’s what happened at my school. We instituted a whole-school detention system and we used the money invested by the Labour government of the day to staff onsite alternative provision. We employed ‘behaviour improvement workers’ who could work with individual students. Some students had a pass to leave a lesson if they felt they were losing control*. It wasn’t a perfect system by any means. There were still behaviour incidents and we still had to occasionally exclude students, but the behaviour improved a great deal. And exam results went up. And the number of students increased.

It may seem righteous to harass a named school on social media, pontificating that you think the school’s stated approach to behaviour management may put off some parents and arguing that therefore the school is ‘selective’. But if that’s your criteria for selection then my sink school was highly selective. The school you are trying to shame at least has a chance of attracting a genuine cross-section of society because the majority of parents don’t want their children to go to chaotic and violent schools.

*Note that this practical, real-world solution is a mix of the kinds of things behaviour ideologues favour and the kind of things they are totally against. This is not a coincidence.


5 thoughts on “The sink school

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    Greg, even though I frequently disagree with you on relatively minor points, you have never really got my back up before. Who in the hell do you mean by ‘behaviour ideologues’? If you mean heads like Katherine Birbalsingh or pioneers like Simon Marcus, at least have the courage to come out and say so. If you don’t feel like naming anyone, at least explain what you mean by this perjorative term.

  2. John Pierry says:

    First of all, good on you for working in and persisting with such a school. I would wager that the best of us have found ourselves at the start of our careers at schools like these. They are difficult – there is no other word – but the work we do is very important.

    I’m puzzled by this comment of yours, though:

    Note that this practical, real-world solution is a mix of the kinds of things behaviour ideologues favour and the kind of things they are totally against.

    I actually see the hall pass as a great idea. Most of the teachers I know, have worked with, or whose articles I have read, who are strongly in favour of inclusion, would see it as an extremely sensible and humane strategy. Kids have to understand that everyone’s inner world is different, and that leaving the room when it gets too much is the best that some children have.

    Can you give an example of the type of comment you are referring to?

  3. David F says:

    Hi Greg–one more thing could be added to your list. In the US, esp in urban areas like where I live, most of the things you list have been tried, often with very poor results. This leads the politicians to throw up their hands and privatize schools. The one thing that has consistently worked is community involvement–if the parents can band together and work towards improvement of the school with the faculty and admin, great things can happen. Sometimes that’s fundraising, but more often its the dynamic of parents supporting at home what the school is attempting to do in the classroom. This often involves educating the parents in those efforts–once they get it, they can be a real force for good.

    Once that happens, other community leaders (businesses, non-profits, universities, local government) may see an opportunity to improve the community–this highlights the importance of a school to a neighborhood’s well-being.

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