John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
Three vulnerable children. One is 12, just finishing her first year in an “outstanding” secondary school. She is a gentle person, a bit big for her age, and has had trouble learning to read. She is subjected to continuous verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse from a pupil with a history of exclusion, who is now receiving the special needs support that had been allocated to her victim, as this is the only resource available to the school. The next two are seven, both with health issues, and subject to incessant verbal and physical abuse from a pupil of the same age, who has been permanently excluded from another school. The pupil does not always pick on others of his own age – he has punched the older sister of one of these boys in the stomach, hard enough for her not to want to go to school. He smirks at the headteacher.
This does not mean that the bullies who are making these pupils’ – and their teachers’ – lives a misery are not “vulnerable” themselves. Their behaviour prevents them from learning just as much as other people, and at some point they are likely to commit an assault that will be serious enough – eg deliberately breaking another pupil’s finger, or kicking a headteacher in the groin – to result in permanent exclusion. They may, if they are very lucky, find themselves in a school staffed by people who are able to bring round this extreme behaviour, and, equally, may find themselves in the lower depths, in a culture of even greater bullying and crime that very often leads to further exclusion, crime and prison.
The point, though, is that the perpetrators of school violence and disruption inflict even more harm on the education of other pupils, and to the morale of teachers, than they do on themselves. School staff, from headteachers to assistants, have the right to work in safety, and children have the right to go to school, work and learn, without having their education disrupted – more often, wrecked – by other pupils. If, as the Education Select Committee suggests, a Bill of Rights is needed, these basic human rights should be Article 1. A child cannot learn properly if he or she is in fear, or subject to constant mockery and derision on the basis of their supposed lack of intelligence – eg Jamie Oliver’s complaint at suffering the taunt “Special Needs” – or their parents’ lack of money.
Among the flack Barry Smith received for his zero-tolerance regime at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy was this letter from a pupil:
“I am honestly so grateful that you became our headteacher in my final year because it allowed us to have a good calm environment for our GCSEs, and it’s thanks to your discipline. I hope the school continues to improve and that you will continue to work as a headteacher.”
This, and similar letters from pupils and parents, matter more to me than the complaints that led Ofsted to visit the school, and to note the transformation achieved by Mr Smith and his colleagues, particularly in the area of physical safety of staff and pupils.
I’ve written in recent postings about our national schism over the purposes of education, exemplified by the extreme views of the Committee’s special adviser, Professor Becky Francis, on the grouping of children according to their learning needs and abilities. This report comes down categorically on one side of the schism, deliberately failing to see both sides of the question and at one point even blaming government policy for the clearly unlawful practice of putting children off the school’s roll. To me, and to very nearly every teacher I know, they have come down on the wrong side, which is the reason for this attempt to redress the balance. The BBC certainly did not do so in its coverage, which simply parroted the report’s conclusions without examining the underlying evidence. How would these reporters feel if it was one of their children who had been abused and assaulted, with no effective action to ensure that it did not happen again?
It was also good to see that the government’s response, from Minister of State, Nick Gibb, did not repeat the committee’s one-sided approach, but recognised the need to improve alternative provision. One useful step would be to reverse the staffing reductions in the teams Labour set up to provide support in mainstream schools for children in care, who by definition have the least chance of educational support outside school. Another would be to improve the training of teachers who work with excluded pupils, so that they have the practical skills they need, rather than progressive and at times Marxist nonsense. It is some time since I was involved in inspecting special schools for pupils with serious behavioural difficulties, but the contrast between the best and the worst at the time was stark, and this picture does not seem to have changed. There is no doubt that we have work to do, but the Committee would have made a more constructive contribution to it if it had given proper consideration to the threat posed to schools by extreme behaviour.