27 July 2017
More cash, more rights or more discipline?
By Lynda Goetz
At the beginning of last week, Justine Greening managed to magic up £1.3bn in extra funding for schools, although it quickly emerged that there was in fact no extra money from the Treasury and that this was going to have to come from savings in other parts of the education budget. The move was made in response to criticisms from Tory MPs that Theresa May’s failure to deal with concerns over struggling schools had been a contributory factor to the party losing its majority in the election. Campaigning by teachers and parents over school funding had been one of the elements in the revolt against ‘austerity’. The result is effectively that, as critics have pointed out, Ms Greening is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’.
This week, according to Camilla Turner (Education Editor of The Telegraph), official figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) showed that attacks on primary school teachers had gone up, with a 75 per cent increase over the last four years in younger children expelled for this offence. This official data is available for anyone to access on the gov.uk website and like most statistics can be interpreted in a number of ways. It is absolutely true that the number of pupils permanently excluded for physical assaults on adults in state-funded primary schools has been on the rise over the last few years; however, in contrast, the number in secondary schools and special schools has remained much the same or, in the case of secondary schools, actually gone down. Wading one’s way through government statistics and the way these are collated is not exactly a fun occupation, however; in attempting to make comparisons over the years, one is faced with the fact there have been different ways of collecting such data and different ways of presenting it. At the end of the day it appears difficult to determine whether things are getting worse, getting better or remaining pretty much the same. FullFact showed this very clearly by their analysis of a similar headline in the Daily Mail in 2013. However, such occasions are always an opportunity for comment.
Chris McGovern, a former DfE advisor and chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, is reported as saying: “The lack of discipline is due to poor control, which comes down to the way teachers are trained. Part of the problem is that the culture has changed so the rights of the pupils are often seen as equal, if not more important, than the rights of the teachers. Our view traditionally is that the teacher is in charge – but now student rights trump everything. A major reason why the country under-achieves in education is poor discipline”. Kevin Courtney, general Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, however felt that a focus on exams and narrow curriculum was leading children to becoming ‘disengaged’, leading to behavioural problems. WorthLess? (the West Sussex schools campaign for Fairer Funding) clearly feels that most of the problems are cash-based, as do many throughout the country including the Labour party, of course.
What are the rest of us to make of these conflicting assessments of the problems faced by schools? It is certainly the case that students these days are far more in the driving seat than has ever been the case in the past. Their rights and opinions are sought in all sorts of ways. We have moved on from the days of the School Council where a few well-behaved pupils were asked to be on a pupil body and allowed intermittently to bring minor matters of concern to the attention of departmental staff and the head teacher. Only this week, the Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced plans to introduce a contract between students and the institutions they attend, which he admitted could lead to them being able to sue their university if there were to be a ‘material divergence’ in their degree course from what they had been led to expect. True, this applies to universities, not schools, so to over-18s, not children in primary or secondary schools, but it does lend weight to the argument of Mr McGovern that ‘student rights trump everything’. Even university league tables have, as we know, been revised to include an element of ‘student satisfaction’.
Is more cash the answer? A US study conducted over 40 years and reported in the press in April 2014 claimed to find that money was not the answer to improved education. Andrew Coulson, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute (the American libertarian think tank), who conducted the study stated that there is essentially no correlation between what states have spent on education and their measured academic output. Not only that, but apparently the statistics also show that decreases in spending have no discernible effect in negatively influencing student scores. A Heritage Foundation report in 2008 appeared to come to the same conclusion. By our own admission (Commons committee report), ‘There are only a few English studies sophisticated enough to provide robust estimates of the impact of school spending on attainment’. The few there are do seem to show that increased spending does have slightly more impact on those with special needs, which does to some extent justify the government funding allocations, which are biased towards more deprived areas.
So, could discipline be the problem as Mr McGovern considered? Peter Tait, writing in Telegraph Education in March (The Elephant in the Classroom) this year seemed to think so. ‘Persistent disruptive behaviour’ is the most common reason for exclusion according to the government statistics, which does suggest that many teachers may be unable to control classes. This supports the view put forward by assistant general secretary for policy at the Association for Teachers and Lecturers, Nancy Ellis, that a major problems is that so many experienced teachers have left the profession and that inexperienced staff struggle to keep control in the classroom. As in the GP profession, many older experienced staff have left teaching; some because they have reached natural retirement age; others because of ‘stress’ and others because of the excessive paperwork and lack of control many feel they have over what is taught and the limitations imposed by the focus at all levels on exams.
This country has for some reason never valued or respected teachers in the way they are respected in other countries, where their role in educating the next generation is seen as important. Here, we have gone rather with the view that ‘those who can do; those who can’t teach’, which hardly shows esteem or respect for a job so vital to society. Perhaps, rather than bleating about the amount spent per pupil, we need to look at the amount spent per teacher – not just in ensuring that they have excellent education themselves, but that they have the support of parents, head teachers and governors in exercising discipline in the classroom. Children may have rights, but their views on how things should be should perhaps not be allowed to prevail in situations where discipline is necessary. Teachers must also be allowed to use their own imaginations and, particularly at primary school level, have the scope to ‘engage’ children without the dead weight of SATS exams and government imposed standards which can have a ‘dementor-like’ effect of sucking the joy out of learning. Let us get back to the fun and thrill of learning so that fewer children are ‘disengaged’ and feel the need to assault staff. It is rather telling that this is happening increasingly at primary school level, surely?
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