“The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.” ~Trotsky
Back in September a document came to light which had been issued by the senior team at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. It was an extensive set of rules to be learned by Year 7 children during their induction period. You can find that document below.
Now a second document has come to light which, to all intents and purposes, has many of the same issues as the first. You can see the full document below.
Before I begin, let me get one thing out of the way. I am largely unconcerned by most of the rules outlined in both documents. In fact, I broadly agree that good, cooperative learning environments are vital to a high quality education. It is perfectly normal for schools to have rules about putting up your hand, or confiscating phones. I am not sure I would send my own children to a school where lunch times were so controlled, or where deferential greetings were to be used, but I realise that is a matter of preference. Am I upset that children have to write thank you cards to teachers? Not really. Do I think the exercise is quite hollow when it is forced? Yes, but that’s the school’s issue not mine. The point is that many of the ends are far less controversial than people would like to think. The means? Well that’s another matter.
So why do I have such an issue with these two documents? By and large it is about the means used to convey the surface and underlying messages, and the potential impact of these. So what problematic messages do we have here? Let me take each in turn
In the earlier document, children were portrayed as being dishonest, striving to avoid work, lying about illness, and disrupting. To me this is quite a worrying stance for a school to take in relation to its pupils and raises some other concerns detailed later. The second document is slightly better in this regard and does note that a number of children want to succeed. However the red highlights show that messages are still being given about children who, seemingly as a group and without appropriate control, are rude and lazy (8), have no ability to take stock of their own lives (13), are prone to whining and whinging (27), and are desperate to do no work, stare out of windows, or damage the education of others at any given opportunity (29).
This one was a big red flag for me in the first version of the document. Staff in the Induction document were portrayed as authorities and always right in every situation. This seems to have reduced in the new version. What is concerning to me here is the way the document portrays the school’s opinions about its staff (as caring and hard working) as factual realities for kids. Surely, and by any reasonable definition of liberty, students should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they think staff care, work hard, or have their best interests at heart.
Looking at the green highlighting, we are told several times that staff are strict because they care (11, 18, 20, 23, 26, 30, 35) to the point that it is almost a mantra. We are also told that teachers believe in the children and do their jobs for kids’ welfare – with the underlying message that decisions should not be questioned and the extremities of the school behaviour policies should be accepted gladly. This is reinforced by the oddly omniscient statement that teachers at Charter have “seen it all” (13). One really jarring line draws together the points about pupils and teachers by saying “we have to be in total control for you to be happy and safe” (23). There is a very strange sense of deference and dependency here which I am not sure is representative of some of the fundamental British values I hold dear.
About other schools…
One of the things which I find deeply unprofessional in both documents is the use of the “other” as a way of pushing compliance, and in the process denigrating other schools (yellow). Frequent references were made in the original document to the dire state of behaviour in many schools in the UK. This has not changed at all in the current release. On several occasions other schools are referred to as places where children don’t learn, don’t work hard; places which actively teach disrespect, and have no care about children’s lives (2, 3). Teachers in other schools are charicatured as lazy whiners who sit in the staffroom (what’s one of those??) drinking tea (19), inventing school rules (22) and generally being miserable gits (24). And pupils elsewhere don’t get away either, being described as “ordinary” in such a way that you can almost hear how it is spat out (11). The message here is clear – contravening the rules means the risk that you might be sent back to ordinary street with all the lazy teachers.
About life after school…
There are also lots of attempts in the induction document, and here (highlighted in blue), to use fear as a way of keeping students in line. Now I think other schools are also guilty of this when they discuss GCSE grades, and I am equally concerned by that. A single mistake, children are told, might mar their whole life (18). Challenging rules they are informed will give them a miserable life (15) because they will be unemployable (11). Bizarrely they are also told that the only thing stopping them from slipping to the very bottom is their heroic school. Again, the sense of deferential dependency is jarring. Ironically, many students will be very successful in some schools precisely because they are challenging teachers and norms. The messages once again are persistent and insidious. They are stated as realities in what I can only assume is a deliberate attempt to instil and inward looking mindset.
About other people...
Beyond this, and despite GYCA’s apparent focus on valuing people, we are told that people who work some jobs are effectively the lazy, feckless, and clearly did not do enough at school (15). There is no sense here that we should value the contributions of all jobs to our society, or that many people choose certain jobs for practical or circumstantial purposes. It seems strange that anyone might opt to write a thank you card for a caretaker who, according to these documents at any rate, failed to do the right things when at school. I dread to think how some of these children might, after five years of input of this sort, look down their noses or sneer at the people behind the supermarket checkout, or who build the expensive houses they will all presumably be living in. This is an incredibly narrow definition of a worthwhile existence.
Why does it matter?
So why does any of this matter? Surely this is just splitting hairs, or a storm in a teacup? I disagree. Just as I am prone to write about schools which have dreadful curriculum policies, or who choose to pursue integrated humanities, or have "secret shopper" observation policies, so I think this deserves specific attention.
There are several reason why I think these issues need to be raised, and why they need to be raised in relation to this particular school approach:
- The major one for me is about student wellbeing. Whilst I am actually a proponent of having firm lines and boundaries, and coherent behaviour systems, I also think we sometimes need to accept trade-offs. One of the big trade-offs for me is that we sometimes have to accept challenges to our authority if it means kids are safer overall. Any school which holds the default position of kids being fundamentally dishonest, or staff as being the authority in every situation, does not take child protection seriously enough in my view. Getting disclosures in schools is rare, but I cannot imagine an atmosphere where staff are seen as always right would encourage anyone to make a disclosure. Indeed, the proceedings of the NCTL panels on teacher misconduct with pupils suggests that a small but significant minority of teachers are do not know what is best for kids, nor do they act out of concern for their best interests. Such people risk going undetected in places where staff are always treated as "right", or where “we have to be in total control for you to be happy and safe”, or “everything we do, we do because we care” is seen as the view of the school towards the actions of its staff. I don't think that is an acceptable trade off. I am also convinced that firm boundaries can be established without the need to take such an extreme position.
- There has been an awful lot of foot stamping about a process called “school shaming” in recent months. I have actually put a blog on this on ice for a while, but may get it out again soon. In my view, what is happening in this document is a perfect example of “school shaming” if we are going to have such a term. The frequent chastening of schools other than GYCA is extremely unpleasant and damaging to the profession as a whole. It is a classic case of “they behave for me” but on an inter-school scale. This is a poor way for a school led by professionals to conduct themselves and I am disappointed to see such views being shared so openly with pupils. Indeed, the PPC aspect of the Teachers' Standards (2012) require that teachers uphold trust in the profession.
- If we really want to create safe environments for children to learn in then I believe the key is to develop routines and respect in an environment of trust. I don't see repeating "teachers are experts and know what is good for me" as trusting. Indeed, the tactics are controlling and repressive - repeated mantras, testing of key phrases (e.g. teachers are experts), redefinition of terms like "mutual respect" or “care” and the creation of fear: "you won't have a happy life if..."; "other schools are terrible and scary so..." If you think I am being hyperbolic about this, this US Intelligence piece on Soviet Youth Indoctrination in schools provides some concerning parallels. This is important, because I think it is perfectly possible to give all of these messages about the importance of community, the responsibilities of students, and the desire for students to work hard and succeed, without using any of these highly dubious approaches and tactics. In fact, I know that to be the case from experience.
- As I have mentioned previously, the original induction document was described as misguided and a “mistake” by people connected with the school, so the fact we have another one suggests some real problems of judgement. That is not the same as questioning the motivations, nor the competence of any of the people at the school. Rather, I hope there is a real reflection this time on why the document was seen as appropriate and how some of the concerns highlighted above might be mitigated. I am fully supportive of GCYA's aim to do their very best for their students, however I think it would be negligent of me as a professional not to raise the concerns above given the potential influence of the school and its Trust on the wider profession.