Education, Control and the Individual: Do you want your child to be a faceless member of a school community?

You haven’t heard from me in a while. I’ve been thinking. A lot. So much has happened in the past weeks. There’s been the Labour Party Conference at which Angela Raynor introduced the National Education Service, and I’ve started teaching, as I mentioned in my last blog, but in the adult education service. I’ve also visited my favourite head teacher for a tour of his school and there’s been Damian Hinds too of course. As I said, a lot to think about. Here are a few of my musings to which I hope you may have some comments, questions, or even better, the answers.

It’s time we change our response from ‘Why is this happening?’ to ‘We know this is happening and we want change!’ I’ve talked before about the cynical treatment of our education and other public services under this government and I will say it again. They know exactly what is happening in our schools. They know the curriculum is being streamlined; they know zero-tolerance behaviour policies are rife and they know their teaching community is becoming younger, less experienced and more malleable. This culture is their baby and it’s growing well in their eyes. We need to start fighting not questioning.

The Mercia Learning Trust has created great discussion and surprise, but from my experience as a parent where I live, their policies are nothing different to what is on offer for my children in a couple of years’ time. Admittedly, our local school doesn’t bully parents in or out of their choices through nasty rhetoric, but it certainly gives no leeway for us to respond to their offer on the table. These schools are free to do this, and in fact encouraged in this free for all which is our current education system. They’ve got results in mind, so everyone has to put up and shut up – or in the jargon of schooling today, be resilient. This zero tolerance approach to behaviour is leading to the extreme off-rolling statistics. It is creating a culture of fear across school communities; the sort of fear which shuts down the conscientious, keeping their heads down so as not to get into trouble for the lack of a pen and kicks out those who really don’t need to be kicked out.

I am going to be radical. What would happen if children were treated as the individuals they are? Something obviously abhorrent to the team at Mercia. This has really struck me in my new job. Teaching adults, I am faced by a group of people now able to bring their individuality to the learning space. As much as I can deliver lessons that I deem appropriate for their level and support needs, I can also respond, dare I say it, to their personalities. Instead of a sea of blazers and ties, dulling their individuality, I am looking at peroxide hair, tattooed arms and faces, tracksuit bottoms and a sea of pattern and colour. They walk in with their identities proudly on show and I am challenged to work with them as such. A wonderful, fruitful challenge, evidenced by the comment my peroxide blonde, tattooed, track-suited student made at the end of his fourth lesson with me, ‘I love how animated you are!’
And remember, many of these are the kids who have failed in the past few years. They still blame themselves for a poor relationship with schooling and attribute their failure to their poor attitude. They tell me they struggled at school; they didn’t get on with school. For me, their reasons suggest a lack of support and engagement at the systemic level. One tells me his attendance averaged 10% and that he lacked a traditional support structure; another that she moved between her parent’s homes but failed to connect at any of the schools she attended. Teachers can be inspirational and committed but if the child feels excluded from the system at any level, that battle to get them through becomes an uphill struggle, which sometimes leaves them and you rolling back down into the abyss.

You see, going back to my point about their individuality and identity pervading the learning space, I don’t buy the ‘uniform creates an egalitarian belonging for all’ argument. It didn’t work for me. I wore a uniform for 11 years of my schooling and never felt I belonged. My children are at a state primary without uniform and skip into that place daily, clearly happy, even proud to be a member of their school community. Some days they are dressed in football kits, others my youngest is in his tiger trousers and my eldest is in a t-shirt he designed himself. Depends on their mood. And what a dynamic space an assembly is, with all those colours and patterns to stimulate your creativity! But also, my children’s teachers can again read their students’ personalities…their identities. Isn’t it important to be able to assert your individuality in order to find your place within a community? And be able to accept others’ within it too?

Schools present a mould into which all children are expected to fit. So many don’t. I spent much of my teaching time in the behaviour unit at my school with those students who had been removed from the classroom for persistent poor behaviour. It was there that you were able to engage with them, to talk about their realities, to get to know them. Mostly, they were bright, they were keen to belong to something but they did not fit the mould of these faceless school communities. They weren’t compliant, their lives were complicated, their support structures erratic. They wanted to be seen and heard and unfortunately this usually only happened for them when they caused trouble. Their time with me in the behaviour unit became quite precious. I gave them creative tasks, such as making a storyboard for a film about their lives, and while they did this, they talked and I listened and I responded. They asked me questions about my choices, my life and I answered. A dialogue formed which was healthy and honest. Their behaviour settled in my space. The thing is everyone likes to be recognised for who they are. If they aren’t getting it at home, due to difficult spaces and relationships, working patterns, and the stress of poverty, they seek it elsewhere. A school should provide this. Zero tolerance is at best a ridiculous policy; at worst it is harmful. As parents, we really shouldn’t accept it. Surely we want our children to be seen as individuals who do deserve some personalisation and differentiation.
Whenever I read posts on TES about compassionate behaviour management, there’s always a comment about ‘I’m a teacher, not a psychologist!’ Depressing that any teacher can see their profession like that. I taught a boy whose mother suffered a severe mental illness. She was no longer allowed near her children. It was not surprising that this boy struggled to form relationships with teachers, particularly female teachers. If one thing went against him, that was it, you lost him. Punishment meant little. He didn’t care about being put in isolation – that has been going on for years by the way. He was too damaged to be hurt by such things. There had to be another way. It had to be something compassionate; it had to be considered. A young man soon to be an adult, he needed to feel someone would give him the time. He was one of the biggest battles I ever faced: told me he hated me numerous times; sent lessons into chaos, but the joy was that he returned to the school with his younger sister for her options night four years after he’d left, and sought me out to tell me his future career plans. We’d got him through and he rated that. He’d become a man, apparently happy and positive.

I am so scared for my children’s next step into schools that present this ‘one size fits all’ model. On my tour of my nearest school, I was informed that my child will wear a cross on their blazer, they will start preparing for their GCSEs from day one in a culture of ‘an uncomfortable sense of increased competition’, they will sit in rows and be silent everywhere! Apparently, they can tell my sons not to have tram-lines in their hair, or a quiff as is fashionable now. The office manager very comfortably informed me of this. So despite the fact that we are not religious; that we talk about learning as a lifelong journey to enjoy; that we encourage their discussion and argument, that we desire their individuality to be at the heart of their development, we will lose all say in that! I love the fact that my children rifle through their wardrobes in the morning, deciding what to wear, and when we go to the barber, they tell him what they want; last time the youngest chose tram-lines and the eldest a lightning bolt. But soon, the school will dictate that as anti-learning and that they must sport the same haircuts as all the other boys in the building. And they will sport their conformist haircut at the weekend too because their school has to ‘assert their brand in the market-place’. His words, absolutely not mine!

I know I am in the minority with my anti-uniform spiel but for me teenagers are not people in need of control. They are exciting, complex people in need of direction, support and guidance. Every child enters the school space with their narrative, with their baggage, with their identity. It is not the place of the system to flatten that, to undermine or negate that, but to engage with it and allow their new school identity to fuse with all the other extrinsic influences as they continue that journey of self-discovery. If a school seeks to flatten, undermine and negate an individual’s identity, it is obviously part of an agenda of control to maintain a social construction that suits those at the helm. Mr Hinds popped his head out of his office to state there will be a cash injection to look at improving behaviour, and there’s been a call out to ex-army service people to join the education service. If they want to teach, great, but lets tell Mr Hinds we know where disruptive behaviour comes from. Lets tell him to fund support for those with special educational needs and for anyone vulnerable within the system. Lets tell him to look at the impact of the government’s austerity measures on children’s levels of home-life security. Lets tell him to consider why knife crime has gone up at a time when other resources have been stripped. Lets tell him not to just send ex-army officers in to shout. Lets tell him to train all teachers, whether they’re ex-army or not, to consider their sociological role and consider the psychological impact of life experiences on the young people in their classrooms. Let’s tell him we are not sending our children to private schools, as he would like, but we are staying right here to ensure the government does not strip the state sector back to its bare bones and undermine the chances of all children to succeed in their own right. We see the agenda and we will fight it.

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