The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.
Some years ago, my colleagues and I were forced to endure a professional development session entitled, ‘Are your lessons worth behaving for?’ Forget the ungrammatical construction of the sentence for one moment, ending as it does with a preposition. Every time this memory resurfaces and, with it, the implicit message that if our students misbehave it must always be our fault, I find myself seeking solace in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in an often unsuccessful attempt to stave off the inevitable enraged response. Come to think of it, perhaps alcohol isn’t the best answer…
Anyway, leaving that to one side, on Tuesday evening this traumatic experience was again evoked as I, perhaps injudiciously, began to watch Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School on BBC Two. Masquerading as an experiment which pitted Chinese didactic teaching methods against the more progressive approach favoured in British schools, it was clearly, first and foremost, made to entertain. And entertain it did. Watching teachers used to students culturally imbued with obedience, respect for authority, ambition and motivation attempt to teach our children, even in an ostensibly successful school like Bohunt, was indeed great television.
But are we going to be able to draw any new conclusions about the merits of the respective teaching methods after four weeks, even if the kids exposed to Chinese traditionalism are tested against their British taught peers at the end? Of course not. First, the Chinese teachers do not know their new students and only have four weeks to teach them. Any teacher will tell you: it takes between three and six months to gain the trust of one’s students in this country. Secondly, and most importantly, there is an enormous cultural gulf between the Chinese teachers and their young English charges – a gulf which, I suspect, cannot be overcome in just one month, if ever. And thirdly, in order to be successful, every teacher needs the support of his or her Head and, in this instance, that is clearly not the case. The Head is desperate for them to fail.
At the end of the four weeks, when, I predict, the British taught kids perform better than their Chinese taught counterparts for the reasons outlined above, the smirking Headteacher will conclude, against all of the international evidence to the contrary, that progressive teaching methods are more successful than those of a more traditional bent.
So as a practical experiment, the methodology and stated concept are deeply flawed. There are simply too many variables outside the realm of pedagogy which will determine outcomes. Yet we can still draw some useful conclusions. For example, the behaviour of many of the children at Bohunt is not conducive to learning. It is disruptive and, in the case of Sophie in particular, downright rude. Indeed, if I were the Head I would be mortified by their treatment of five visitors attempting to broaden their horizons.
And here we come to the crux of the problem. Mr Strowger, the Bohunt Headteacher, blames the behaviour of the kids on the Chinese teachers. Instead of reading them the Riot Act, appalled by their treatment of overseas visitors, he points the figure of blame at the teachers’ traditional, didactic methods. So, too, did the Head of Maths. In fact, he appeared to revel in the misery being inflicted by the children, deluding himself that it proves the superiority of child-centred progressivism.
All it really proved was his own inadequacies and unfitness for the position of teacher, let alone Headteacher. The children at Bohunt are great: quirky, intelligent and full of potential. Their Headteacher, though, is letting them down. In blaming the teachers for their poor behaviour, when he should be instilling the attitude that you treat everyone with equal respect, even if you find them difficult to understand, or even boring, he is encouraging the children to misbehave, be rude and then search for excuses. It’s extremely sad.
Unfortunately, Mr Strowger is not unrepresentative of other Headteachers around the country either. They are intensely damaging to our children. Forget academies, Secretary of State, do something about these numpties. Everybody’s lessons are worth behaving for.
If this one conclusion is drawn, and something done about it, the programme’s impact will be much more profound than a simple piece of cheap, Tuesday-night entertainment often begets. I very much doubt it, though.