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Chris McGovern: Our pupils need Chinese-style discipline


How big a problem is pupil indiscipline in our schools? Is it a cause or is it a symptom of educational failure? Are things getting better or worse? Do we have anything to learn from what goes on in more successful school systems around the world?

The government’s decision to set up a school behaviour task force suggests that matters are serious. Too often, schools in particular, and the educational establishment in general, seek to play things down. “Keep it quiet,” is the automatic response of the ‘Blob’ to all evidence of failure and not least to a breakdown of order in some schools.

The DfE publish annual national data for exclusions but they take an age to compile and as long to analyse. The most recent statistics (2013-14) indicate that in England there were 11,420 suspensions from state primary schools for physical assault against an adult – an increase of 25 per cent on the previous year. The number for secondary and special schools was 7,550.

Among the 5 to 16 age group, 51,240 pupils were suspended for an assault against another pupil. In addition, many more pupils are suspended for various forms of bullying including verbal, racial and sexual abuse.

Given that most schools these days, under the pressure of Ofsted inspections, are very reluctant to suspend pupils, these figures are shocking especially compared with the most successful education systems around  the world.

What is going on at a local level, at a school near you, can be difficult to extrapolate from the national data. Sometimes, however, local journalists dig below the surface. This random example is a headline from the Coventry Telegraph a few days ago: “Drugs, racism and violence saw thousands of children excluded from Coventry and Warwickshire schools.”

Much less visible is the low-level classroom disruption that seriously undermines teaching and learning. According to Ofsted, the chances of being taught in a well-ordered classroom these days is “something of a lottery”. Many teachers, it seems, are willing to accept such disruption as an “inevitable part of everyday life”.

The instinct of schools is to ‘cover up’ and close ranks when faced with a failure to control pupils. Adverse publicity regarding pupil behaviour is every school’s nightmare. It brings unwelcomed public scrutiny, undermines parental confidence and sinks the school’s reputation.

It is only occasionally, therefore, that the lid is lifted. Last year, the BBC parachuted five Chinese teachers into an English comprehensive school as part of an experiment on English versus Chinese teaching methods. The school chosen was Bohunt School in Liphook, Hampshire. This is not an ordinary ‘bog-standard’ comp but the jewel in the crown of state schools. When selected by the BBC it had just won the hotly contested title of “Secondary School of the Year”, awarded by The Times Educational Supplement.

The class of 13-14 year-olds taught by the Chinese teachers consisted of 50 pupils – the norm in China. After 4 weeks, nevertheless, it out-performed the parallel and much smaller class taught by some of the school’s own best teachers.

A remarkable insight provided by the experiment was the shocked reaction of the Chinese teachers to the behaviour of the English pupils at this ‘crème de la crème’ comprehensive. Here are some of their comments: “In China we don’t need classroom management skills because everyone is disciplined by nature, by families, by . . . society. Whereas here that is the most challenging part of teaching.”

“When I handed out the homework sheets, I expected everybody to be concentrated on the homework but when I walked in the classroom . . . some students were chatting, some students were eating, somebody was even putting make-up on her face. I had to control myself, or I would be crazy.”

“About half of them tried their best to follow me. And the other half? Who knows what they were doing?”

“Even if they [English pupils] don’t work, they can get money, they don’t worry about it. But in China they can’t get these things so they know, ‘I need to study hard, I need to work hard to get money to support my family’.

“If they [the British government] really cut benefit down [to] force people to go to work they might see things in a different way.”

Given that the attainment of Chinese 15-year-olds is up to three years ahead of ours it is possible that we may have something to learn from them; not least in terms of classroom behaviour – the foundation on which effective learning takes place.

(Image: Rex Pe)

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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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