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Chris McGovern: You can’t be serious! A jail that beats strife-torn schools for educational standards


“Teens behind bars get better education than thousands of pupils in ordinary schools”. I wonder what impression of our education system readers of Gulf News, a major online news outlet for the Middle East, gained from this recent headline on its website. It is, probably, equally puzzling to those who live in the UK.

Last week’s Annual Report to Parliament from Ofsted boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, recorded that 29 per cent of maintained secondary schools are providing an education that is below the level of “good”. The Chief Inspector regards this situation as a matter for concern and points to poor behaviour by pupils as an important contributing factor.

How different things are at the Hindley Young Offender Institution (YOI) in the North-West of England, reported on by Gulf News! Ofsted has judged the teaching it provides as “outstanding”, behaviour as “very good” and attainment in maths and English as “above the national average”. All aspects of learning, skills and work at the Institution are rated as “good”. Teachers are described as having “high aspirations” for the youngsters they teach and poor behaviour is recorded as only “isolated”.

In view of the fact that the ‘young offenders’ represent, probably, the most challenging students to teach, the success of Hindley represents quite an achievement. Set up by the Criminal Justice Act 1988, YOIs grew out of the old borstal system that was replaced in 1982 by youth custody centres. They are the part of the prison system that deal mainly with the 18-20 age group but the one at Hindley holds a broader age group – males from 15 to 21. The past brutality of such institutions was vividly portrayed in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. He observed that he had “never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.”

How things have changed! Who would have thought, in the past, that secondary schools, today, would need to be taking a lesson from the successor to the borstal system?

Almost by definition our best schools are those where pupil behaviour is first rate. The Chief Inspector is right to call for more order in the classroom. It is the essential foundation stone for a regeneration of our education system. It underpins successful school systems around the world. The education of thousands upon thousands of hard working and conscientious children is being ruined on a daily basis by both low-level and high-level indiscipline around them.

Such a state of affairs has been going on for years and has become a part of the educational culture in this country. I recall a speech, back in the 1980s, made to a teacher union conference by a Falklands War veteran who had subsequently become a teacher. He commented that entering some classrooms was worse than coming under fire from the Argentinians. Some of the current generation of former soldiers who are, now, being recruited as teachers are in for quite a surprise.

In that small minority of schools where chaos reigns, and in that much larger number of schools where some form of disruption is common, order has to be restored. This does not mean, necessarily, a ‘rod of iron’ approach but it may mean such an approach in extreme cases where the future of the majority of children has to be protected.

In addition, ‘classroom management’ needs to be given priority status for teacher training and for the continuing professional development. Furthermore, classroom teachers need to have confidence in senior management and its capacity to provide support as necessary.

There is no “one size fits all’ approach to school discipline but the best schools have certain characteristics in common. The rules of behaviour are fair, clear, effective and enforced. Most of all, it is worth remembering that in any school someone will be in charge. It helps if that person is the head teacher.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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