Entirely Without Compassion

I was too busy riding my bike through piles of leaves in the woods on the glorious day that was Sunday to see the apparently relentless, self congratulatory twitter campaign run by a little school in London. Thank goodness it didn’t rain. I’m not getting into the pros and cons of this one school. But I have some questions about the impact that the overall ethos of being “strict” has on other schools. And the title, before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, does not refer to this school. It refers to an accountability system which allows some people to be lauded for excluding children and others to be condemned for including them.

Any school that introduces a zero tolerance behaviour policy is creating a form of social engineering in which parents and children who will not or cannot comply will be excluded from the school. Some heads have had no qualms in using phrases such as “not our kind of family.” So these children go elsewhere. They go to schools willing to take the hit on their data. They go to schools who believe that all children deserve a chance, especially those whose parents won’t help to set the boundaries they need, or who don’t care if they’re educated or not. It galls me that schools can be deemed outstanding on the basis of results and excellent behaviour around school when they have created an uneven playing field. Or that the school down the road, opening their arms to the neglected and disaffected, are deemed to require improvement.

In recent years, the move by Ofsted to assess ‘progress over time’ has been welcomed – rightly – as an indication of a teacher’s success, but in doing so there has been an ever increasing focus on results. Progress for some children is being present; being able to converse humanely with another person; being settled but these things don’t matter. Even as we see highly unreliable data from KS2 SATs throwing into question the whole credibility of moderation; even as Ofqual release its findings that almost half of English and History students receive the wrong mark in exams (in the same year that they made remarks harder); even as we learn more about the impact of stress on the brain’s capacity to remember and learn – exacerbated for children living in poverty…I could go on…but even as all these things emerge, our accountability system holds on to the sinking hull that is our dependence on exams for measuring a school’s worth.

I sat at home weeping last night as I read messages from a headteacher who has dedicated his whole life to working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He’s spent years battling with parents, social services, mental health services and others to give children the care and attention they need. He’s dealt with staffing crises, hideous child protection issues, the works. And he’s now out of a job based on the judgment of a single Ofsted inspection in which the data was deemed to be poor –  a judgment made in a year in which the whole SATs system was wrecked. The loss to the profession is huge. But what a way to treat a compassionate human being. Ofsted will wash its hands of this. The hiring and firing of a head is a matter for the MAT or LA they will say. They’ll wash their hands of the suicide of a young Science teacher in Manchester who couldn’t cope with the workload pressure – pressure that, as is well documented, comes from senior leaders’ desperation to please  Ofsted – to get the results. Who can blame them? Poor results and they are out. Just as schools with zero tolerance policies wash their hands of the children they reject, our accountability system accepts no responsibility for lives and careers ruined by a narrow and highly unreliable set of measures. It’s truly sickening what we have become in our desperation to standardise and verify everything.

This is not the fault of a single inspector or human being. I recognise the efforts of people like Sean Harford and before him, Mike Cladingbowl to humanise the organisation and to listen. But nevertheless,  this is a failure of systems designed to find simple solutions to complex problems; of the need to compete, to be seen to be tough. It demonstrates a lack of compassion, of tolerance, of being able to cope with the nuances of individual human experience. So who can blame schools for playing the game? Getting tough by selecting only those kids whose parents will ensure they wear the right uniform, pay their bills on time, do their homework, attend detentions? Who can blame them for surviving in a heartless system by putting head before heart? They’ll get results. They’ll be Outstanding. There will be knights and dames. And who will notice the dedicated ex headteacher weeping in a corner? The teacher battling to keep a child in school knowing they’ll be lucky to have a pen on the day of the exam? No-one, it seems.

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19 thoughts on “Entirely Without Compassion

  1. This is such an important post, thank you. When did education stop being about children and start being all about the grades? The students who need the most from teachers are not likely to be in the highest grades (sometimes, but not usually!) – yet that is not seen anywhere. My best result was a pass in final year exams. Neither the student, the parents or the school thought it was possible or likely – when the student’s view changed, and she had the time to work through with me and her classmates, she found she was able to do better than she ever expected. It is these students who need teachers the most… And our society who needs people who believe in themselves, in perseverance and in trying even when it is hard….
    I love teaching, but I worry about how far our administrative values have come from our core reason for being ther: educating children. All children. Not just the smart or compliant ones. Not just the lucky ones.
    Thanks again for this post – it is necessary to keep reminding everyone of the real impact of policies about growth, marks, grades and improvements (measured only by narrow criteria).

  2. Perfectly and eloquently put. You have distilled all my thoughts and anger into measured and articulate prose. What about the kids whose parents cannot and will not support them . No excuses is actually lots of excuses. Lots of excuses for the schools involved. Excuses for leaving children out in the cold, excuses for not supporting parents meaningfully, excuses for excluding children who have no-one to stand up for them, no strong and consistent attachments and boundaries, and on and on. Where is Ofsted holding these schools to account on this tragic waste of potential in children?

  3. “In recent years, the move by Ofsted to assess ‘progress over time’ has been welcomed – rightly – as an indication of a teacher’s success, but in doing so there has been an ever increasing focus on results. Progress for some children is being present; being able to converse humanely with another person; being settled but these things don’t matter. Even as we see highly unreliable data from KS2 SATs throwing into question the whole credibility of moderation; even as Ofqual release its findings that almost half of English and History students receive the wrong mark in exams (in the same year that they made remarks harder); even as we learn more about the impact of stress on the brain’s capacity to remember and learn – exacerbated for children living in poverty…I could go on…but even as all these things emerge, our accountability system holds on to the sinking hull that is our dependence on exams for measuring a school’s worth.”

    Do you have links for any of this evidence? Especially about the impact on the brain?

  4. In his book ‘On Forgiveness’, Richard Holloway writes:

    The refusal to punish switches our attention from the actions themselves onto the agents who committed them, including the factors that influenced their conduct and which we should take account of when planning our response. There is an opposing moral tradition that dismisses this as a colossal mistake, because it holds that it is only acts we can accurately judge, never persons. The history of individuals is so complex that accurately judging their culpability is impossible; it is easier to decide whether their actions are objectively wrong and should be punished, because the law itself has to be vindicated for the sake of the community. This is a strictly logical position, but few of us would be prepared to say that moral acts can be completely separated from their human context, including the agent’s level of awareness and intention.

  5. Reblogged this on includedbygrace and commented:
    I’m reblogging this because every word is true and full of pain and compassion. This is the world we must pray for. This is the world hitting the most vulnerable, the poor and the disabled. Please pray for our education system. We need a new vision filled with inclusion and equality of opportunity. We need a miracle.

  6. There has been a normalisation of certain attitudes and what these mean and also that these things are “desirable” over other things. These include things like “success” (as defined by examination passes – and an increasingly narrow set of these), “choice” as defined by the rights of the individual over the rights of the group, “traditional” mean the best of the past, “rigour” meaning adherence to a set of standards as defined by the powerful, “disciplined” meaning following a set of rules set by those who ‘know better’ etc… This is not new but seems to have exacerbated over the last years to form a mantra that has moved, even more, the power from the powerful to the powerless. The process of making the population “gentle” not “gentrified” i.e. passive and not equipped to challenge.

    The social equality gains that we saw from post-WWI until the 1970s have been severely reversed leading us to the current situation and to the growing demonisation of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. Compassion is an inevitable victim of this process.

    The cliché, “knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing” comes to mind.

  7. These are true words indeed and certainly resonate with me as someone who is in the profession and has suffered as a child in the way described. I have seen first hand the pressure on teaching staff in the face of bigotry and narrow mindedness – childrens futures given no more thought than a used tissue.
    The question for me is what can we do about it? Fine words are one thing but this has been going on for years, it’s change we need not words…. no disrespect to anyone.

  8. It is possible to combine the achievement required by Ofsted with a caring, nurturing environment. My daughters went to a school in an area considered deprived and with children who displayed various difficulties. Each child was valued as an individual and encouraged to succeed. It was a wonderful primary school and both daughters were very happy. The school is an academy and has now become part of an academy group so that other local schools can take advantage of the skills of the leaders and teachers. I know that stories like this are perhaps the exception rather than the rule but it demonstrates that it is possible to be both high achieving and nurturing. The school, and its sister schools, are all rated ‘outstanding’.

  9. I agree so much with this. I know a bright and determined girl who, because of difficulties in attendance at school had it suggested on several occasions she would “be better at another school” . By their own behaviour, certain staff at that school ensured that the situation escalated to a point where the girl did, indeed, go to another school. The second school took her on board, nurtured her and her attendance, and at long last she is starting to thrive. The difference in attitudes between the schools astonished me. However, your words above show me why now. The first was highly rated, the second less so…..yet how much better for the child that turned out to be.

  10. Good post; its your humanity, that all good teachers must have if they are to be “really successful”in teaching, that you show in your post. My partner, who is also teacher, and I always think about the pupils and students we “saved,” usually from themselves when they were damaged from their home-lives and their experience in schools where academic results mattered above anything else. It was those children and young adults who gave us most pleasure when they gained confidence in their studies. Not all were academically successful for us. One student who was bi-polar flunked his final English A Level exams because he was having an episode and he couldn’t think. It didn’t prevent him becoming a poet and performing his poetry in public as well as going on to get a good degree. His academic identity had been already well and truly established.

    Teachers today are working in an educational landscape that is more oppressive than at any time in my career. The number of teachers/tutors that I know personally who have had mental breakdowns through stress and loss of confidence is far higher than it naturally should be. Mental illness among students has also grown over the years as they feel the pressures to succeed in a highly competitive and unfair educational environment transferred increasingly onto them.

    Since the early part of the last century our society has never been more damaged. Teachers have no imput in educational policy in Britain. Until that changes I’m afraid we are going to get more of the same from the most ignorant policy makers in our life-times.

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