Chaotic Legacy of the Classroom Radicals

March 25, 2012


Halfway through my first year as a history teacher at an inner-city comprehensive in England, I am reeling from the volley of abuse and misbehaviour that makes up my daily grind. I can be sure that at some point in my day I will be aggressively confronted, blithely disobeyed, and probably sworn at. Restless nights are common, and nervousness ongoing. Still, talking to my friends from teacher training, I feel I’m having a comparatively easy ride. I have not yet been physically assaulted, and so far I have avoided the much-feared mid-lesson breakdown.

At schools such as this, the deprived background of the children is routinely presented as a catch-all explanation for bad behaviour. The pupils’ chaotic home lives, their lack of prospects, and an absence of aspiration in the local community are all popular excuses for the pandemonium that pervades inner-city schools. These factors undoubtedly have an effect, but such thinking lets schools like this off the hook. The endemic discipline problem within the state sector is in reality self-inflicted. At least half a century of “progressive” thinking on pupil behaviour has had disastrous consequences. In the competitive field of follies wrought by 1960s radicalism, there is a very good case for progressive education being the most socially destructive.

My school’s discipline problem is depressingly normal. A survey last October for the Guardian Teacher Network — hardly a bastion of old-fashioned disciplinarians — found that 40 per cent of teachers complained of being bullied by pupils and, of those who considered quitting, 50 per cent named pupil behaviour as the reason. A 2010 National Union of Teachers (NUT) survey found that 92 per cent of teachers believed pupil behaviour had worsened over the course of their career, and 79 per cent claimed that they were unable to teach effectively because of poor behaviour. During the last school year, 44 teachers were hospitalised with severe injuries from pupil attacks at a five-year high. Perhaps most worryingly of all, a 2008 Policy Exchange report showed that the atrocious reputation of British schools for poor behaviour was the main factor in deterring new graduates from becoming teachers.

Despite the recent arrival of an energetic new head, my school’s results remain stubbornly unimpressive. It is strikingly obvious to me and many of my colleagues that the fundamental impediment to pupils learning is a lack of classroom discipline. However, when I suggested this to a member of senior management at a training session, he winced at the very word “discipline”. “Right,” he said swallowing uncomfortably, “behaviour for learning” — this being the trendy euphemism, modishly abbreviated to B4L, favoured by schools too right-on to use the D-word. How, I wondered to myself, did British education get to a state where discipline is a dirty word?

In an essay on education written in 1961, the political theorist Hannah Arendt foresaw the steady erosion of discipline in Western schools. She wrote: “The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” If this was a problem in 1961, it is a catastrophe in 2012.

Since Arendt wrote her essay, legions of progressive educators have denied the need for authority in schools. The permissive rhetoric of 1960s radicalism was particularly influential among teachers, and their ideological precepts were applied to classroom culture. The undisputed leader of this “progressive” movement in Britain was A.S. Neill, founder of the revolutionary Summerhill School. Neill documented his philosophy in his 1962 book Summerhill, a runaway success which sold more than two million copies. In it he claimed, “I believe that to impose anything by authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion — his own opinion — that it should be done.”

After the 1960s, radical educationists who subscribed to this thinking began their long march through the institutions. The idea of child-led learning came to dominate our teacher-training colleges and classrooms. Such thinking claimed that teachers should never coerce pupils to learn against their will, but instead place them in a situation where they can learn for themselves. The favoured description of a teacher’s job changed from “teaching” to “facilitating”. The rhetoric of child-led education was, and still is, extremely seductive, but it has failed to deliver. It is premised upon a fatally misplaced assumption that pupils can be relied upon to know what is best for them. The practical consequence of this utopian thinking has been the consistent fall in standards of British state education.

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, British comprehensive schools gained their reputation for ill-discipline and low expectations. One of the most articulate critics of these developments was the poet, teacher and literary critic, Brian Cox. Born in Grimsby and raised on Milton and Methodism, Cox was a working-class intellectual of the old school. Together with such luminaries as Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest he edited the Black Papers — a series of strident attacks on the changes happening in British education. In his 1992 memoir The Great Betrayal, Cox wrote that “the abdication of authority by teachers has fundamentally damaged our society”.

By the late 1980s, British comprehensives had become synonymous with chaotic indiscipline. A survey carried out in 1987 by the Professional Association of Teachers found that 94 per cent of teachers believed indiscipline was becoming more commonplace, 86 per cent believed that classroom violence was increasing, 80 per cent had been subjected to verbal abuse, and 32 per cent had been physically attacked by a pupil. For many, the link between the crisis in British schools and the radical ideas which preceded it was unambiguous. As Cox wrote in 1992: “Today the breakdown of discipline in inner-city comprehensives is a direct result of the sicknesses which afflicted the schools in the 1960s.”…

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