Making a start

Making a start

I got my PGCE in 1994 when I was 46. I got my first job as the science teacher in a special school. I was told the last one went home at break time on his first day and never returned. There had been a two year gap before I came along.

I’d been doing supply teaching in state schools for a year and I didn’t know schools like the one I was entering existed. It was in a small rural village, up a long driveway with staff houses on both sides, surrounded by fields. I parked my old Saab amongst the newer and smarter cars and went in to the office block. There was a recent photo of Princess Anne opening the new school site with the owners in attendance.

I was offered the job, on a private pay scale way below what I would have been paid in a state school. I was told that the school didn’t need fences because if a child tried to run away they were faced with open fields and nowhere to hide. They didn’t get far.

That’s where this blog started, although most of my personal writing has been fairly private since then and I called it ‘miscellaneous jottings’. I quickly realised that there was no training available to be a ‘special’ teacher in a ‘special’ school. I couldn’t find anything useful to read either.

There were 110 children there, from the age of five to sixteen, segregated from other children because they wouldn’t or couldn’t behave themselves. I decided if no-one else could help me to make sense of this, I’d do it myself. I had a lot of experience of DIY. I studied for three years with the Open University for my M.A. and for eight years at the University of East Anglia for my Ph.D. and paid all the costs myself, working full-time.

What I found out changed my life and the lives of children I’ve worked with, and it’s what I’m writing about now.

It’s all clear …….

Over the last 150 years we have developed a steady and well thought-out regime in schools, tested and refined over time to deal with the bad and the naughty children. We know there are always going to be a few bad apples and we have systems to make sure they don’t send the whole barrel rotten. We warn them when they start to go wrong. we punish them if they don’t heed the early warnings. if they persist we collect the evidence against them, we find out what they can’t do and tell them to do it. If they still disrupt, disobey and generally break the school rules we exclude them. That deals effectively with the problem.

The result of this long-term national experiment is that we know that dealing with bad children by ‘control and punishment’ is amazingly successful. It keeps the adults in charge of schools as well-regulated places. Taking heed of this success some Academies are excluding the bad children before they even enter the school door. Or soon after. ( )

Selecting out children with statements and those with a record of poor behaviour in primary school can certainly improve the results of high schools and can be seen as good preventative work. Children over the whole age range, from 3 years old onwards are being moved towards exclusion, making all those places better for the good children.


The control and punishment system is being continuously honed and sharpened. Right now the government’s ex-Expert Advisor on Behaviour Expert, Mr Charles Taylor, now permanent Chief Executive of the Teaching Agency,author of the notable ‘Divas and Dinosaurs’ (2008) says there should be the recital of lists of rules, twice daily, that he has drawn up for us from his experience as a teacher and head of a special school.

( )He also explains to us that when children get angry the supply of blood to their brains gets shut off and that’s what stops them thinking. There’s science for you. Mr Taylor is just a recent appearance in the long and distinguished line of experts in behaviour management, confirming our need to control children, knowing their innate tendency to be bad and taking up our responsibility as teachers to stop them doing it and to put them right. And most importantly that there’s no other way to do it.

.. as mud.

However if we switch our attention from organisational success to the success of the children themselves, the picture is very different. As one Academy I know of recently put it ‘We’ve got the behaviour under control but the children don’t seem to be learning anything’.

What’s going on here?

About the same number of children are excluded year by year, with minor fluctuations. On their way to exclusion, children are subjected to segregation and social isolation, delayed punishment, sensory deprivation, public humiliation – the sorts of things that are banned in the prison system.

Reading this great natural experiment another way it tells us that:

Most children know the rules and follow them – they don’t need heavy regulation, schools only have a very small number of children who test their systems to breaking point. Most children are almost invisible to the ‘behaviour policy’.

Control systems deprive children of their opportunity to flourish in their lives. Excluded children are over represented in homeless, crime, addiction,ducational failure, mental illness statistics.

Control systems do not seem to promote children’s creativity and initiative, their lifelong love of learning.

A note: the dominant system for behaviour management in schools is based on Descarte’s explanation of how the brain works, on the fixedness of the brain’s functions and on the separation of the body and mind. That’s 400 year old science for you.

Here is a story from my working life,about doing something completely different.

Kyle was in is first year in high school. He’d had a bad start and things had got worse; he was consistently uncooperative, rude to teachers, lazy, resistant to the school’s Behaviour Policy. Being rude to teacher’s was the biggest problem, I was told. I met him in the summer term, by which time the school had tried everything and he was on the verge of permanent exclusion.

The first time I went into school for a pre-arranged meeting I was told that he was refusing to come to meet me. I left a message for him that I’d be back at the same time the next week, I’d be ready to meet him if he was ready to meet me. The next time things went well. We met 5 times over 4 weeks. From the time of our first meeting, he started to behave as the school wanted. At our last meeting, with 4 weeks of success under his belt, he said he was confident that he could keep going without my support.

I called into school early in the Autumn term to see how he was getting on. The SenCo said Kyle was fine, and there no risk of him being permanently excluded. I met Kyle for about fifteen minutes, he told me things were fine – he did get into trouble a bit like all the others in his class, but that was ok wasn’t it?

What was different? I’d approached him as ‘the expert in himself’ and I hadn’t given him any advice. Instead I’d asked him what he hoped for. He said, to stay in school with his friends. I’d asked him what was working already. I’d asked him what might change a bit for things to go better. I’d asked him if he’d look out for what was going well. He did, and told me about it in our meetings. He kept on noticing, even after we’d finished our work together. And I knew that what we’d done had worked, because there he was in school the next term, getting on with it.

Instead of focusing on the problem, I’d been solution focused. That’s the difference that makes the difference.

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