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Chris McGovern: Why UK education standards are low. Because heads ignore classroom disruption


Another crisis report on the state of our education system is about to be published. This time, the concern is about widespread levels of poor behaviour in our classrooms. An Ofsted investigation has concluded, “for too many pupils the chances of being in a calm and well-ordered classroom has become something of a lottery”.

Head teachers are going to be singled out for criticism. Apparently, they are not facing up to the challenge and are mainly responsible for “a culture of casual acceptance”. This includes children, especially in secondary schools, causing disruption by “making silly comments to get attention, swinging on chairs, passing notes around, quietly humming and using mobile phones”. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector, will be calling on school bosses to get tough.

Certainly, there is a major problem. YouGov polls, commissioned by Ofsted as part of its research, indicated that a majority of both teachers and parents identified low-level disruption as commonplace in classrooms. Teachers feel frustrated by the lack of support they receive from head teachers and from senior management. Pupils who actually wish to learn something in school are the silent victims of lessons that are constantly disrupted by poor behaviour.

Given the level of disruption, I suppose the surprise is that pupils learn anything at all, these days, in some schools. The latest ‘fly on the wall’ TV series, “Educating the East End”, will be illuminating for those not well acquainted with comprehensives. On the one hand, we have lots of vivacious children, full of potential, of aspiration and of hope. They are being ‘taught’ by committed and nurturing teachers who have a genuine desire and determination to do the best for their pupils.

In many ways the programmes present an inspiring picture of young people and their teachers, today. However, the level of pupil behaviour and bad language will have shocked many viewers. At times, it really does seem as though the inmates have taken over the asylum. And hidden behind the human story distraction of ‘reality’ TV is the other reality. The most recent available exam results (2013) for the school show that only 8 per cent of pupils achieved the Government’s ‘benchmark’ EBac of five GCSE ‘passes’ in English, maths, a science, a foreign language and either history or geography.

All of this is a long way from the experience of children in the most successful education systems around the world. There is never any doubt about who is in charge of schools and classrooms in the educational high-flying countries of the Asia-Pacific area. The same can be said for the best schools in the UK, especially within the independent sector.

What, then, is going on in our ‘bog standard’ comps? Why do so many of our maintained secondary schools have such a problem? I doubt that Ofsted will wish to highlight its own responsibility. For years, through its lesson-observation grading system, it has been promoting a style of classroom teaching that encourages poor behaviour. This so-called ‘child-centred’, group-based learning, reduces the role of the teacher to that of a passive ‘facilitator’. He/she has to operate, in the jargon, as a ‘learning manager of the learning process’. Too often, chaos and disruptive behaviour is the result.

Matters are made worse by the fact that around 20 per cent of 11-year-olds are leaving primary school without, even, a basic competence in literacy and numeracy. At secondary school they often become increasingly disengaged and bored. Poor behaviour is a predictable consequence.

The Chief Inspector has discovered a problem in our schools that has been self evident for years. Unfortunately, he has not yet identified key, underlying causes. He may be making some progress but his slow learning curve is proving costly for those children whose education is being lost.

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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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