Strange Ways, Here We Come

Ah, adolescence: those heady days when a fifth state – Kleptomaniac – often rode with the apocalyptic cavalcade of Pustulent, Famished, Deaf and Bored. Nicking for kicks was a ‘thing’ for many of my classmates, who descended on the local Superdrug like a plague of locusts, half-inching whatever was immediately at hand when the security guard’s back was turned. Which is how a friend with a number one buzz-cut became the chief cause and beneficiary of 1982’s Great Hair Bobble Drought.

Unimpressed by her hauls of random tat, I failed to develop a similar taste for grand theft. Along with some capacity for guilt, and a preference for misdemeanours that tend to pass undetected, that disinterest has gifted me a DBS record as spotless as a constipatee’s pants. I can walk past HMPs with the smug bounce of one who possesses no knowledge of Life Inside. Or so I believed, until I looked again at the evidence, m’Lud, and found that the stack on the opposite side was getting taller.

The idea that schools are sadistic prisons is not new. Not in the arts, anyway: see any number of Dickensian institutions, inspired by the author’s experiences; or Miss Trunchbull’s chokey in Matilda, inspired, perhaps, by the Iron Maiden in a former Principal’s office. It’s a notion onto which the zeitgeist appears to be latching, now that Cameron’s attempt to pay homage (again) to The Smiths*, by turning soldiers into teachers and vice versa, has all but failed. A Hull employment agency is currently advertising for (ex-) prison officers to work as behaviour support staff in schools. And as several Governors can testify, some of the teachers who’ve made their Great Escape from schools have found alternative employment as prison officers. So far, so literal.

* See ‘The Headmaster Ritual’ from Meat Is Murder.

However, let’s get metaphorical. For me, one of the first pushes away from employee-hood, towards a more independent modus operandi, was the increasing incidence of Stockholm Syndrome – or something much like it. Put bluntly, too many of my teaching colleagues were losing their ability to envision a different kind of existence. Echoing their gaolers’ words, ridiculous expectations and insane workloads were characterised as “the nature of the job”, circumlocuting the fact that a workplace’s culture is as much a matter of nurture, and can, therefore, be changed.

That I, too, was sleepwalking towards a comparable state of suggestibility became apparent when taking up a new job. With my start date delayed by an administrative cock-up, I fell into a depressive funk for several weeks, convinced that not working until the wee hours of every single morning made me a waste of good atoms. The impact on my nearest and dearest, as I self-flagellated to the edge of nutterdom, was a banshee of a wake-up call – one that turned a miserable experience into the point at which I decided that something had to change.

Catching up with erstwhile colleagues during the summer, when hearts were as light as the long, long, evenings, I was struck by how many of the old tropes still apply: tales of educational sweatshoppery; threats of defamatory references hanging from the rafters, like meat cleavers attached to thinning strings of cheese. For those of a more Kafka-esque bent, see the “Huh?”-inducing frequency with which employees are convicted of misconduct because they refuse to cheat, or incompetence because they know their stuff too well. Summarily dismissed, and with virtually no means of appeal at their disposal, their experiences remind us that education sorely needs a Me Too movement of its own.

And then HMP Birmingham ‘happened’, laying bare processes that, to those who work in education, are as familiar as they are instructive. Since its private takeover, the prison has been beset by squalid conditions, escalating drug consumption, increasingly frequent assaults on staff, and inmates in effective control. Now, Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before but have you seen the dangerous state of some Bright Tribe school buildings, documented recently on Panorama? Or the Labour Force Survey results, revealing that secondary school teachers suffered three times as many assaults at work as other respondent occupations?

As I discussed in an earlier post, peer-on-peer assaults often result in perpetrators facing no real punishment. According to the National Education Union’s ATL wing, crimes against staff are increasingly unreported because victims have concluded – from the evidence before them – that attacks on their persons and property are to be “accepted and expected”. Much of this is attributable to staffing levels. Thanks to cutbacks, mismanagement or, indeed, the second masquerading as the first, the adult presence in many schools is dwindling discernibly. Sending a miscreant into another classroom is of little value if escalating pupil:teacher ratios have left it bursting at the seams. Similarly, it’s hard to run a sin bin, cool-down zone or think tank when there aren’t enough employees to supervise it.

However, it’s in the quality of staff that the overlap is, perhaps, most apparent. HMP Birmingham has seen a significant influx of inexperienced officers since its takeover: approximately 23% of its staff have less than a year’s service under their belts. It’s a scenario recognisable from many schools, where NQTs, TAs and unqualified employees have, for some time, formed a growing proportion of frontline – indeed, teaching – staff. Too often, the same are left unsupported by seniors whose managerial style, much like that of their prison-service equivalents, bears more resemblance to the Mannequin Challenge than to any CPD I know. Add in a lack of pedagogic and subject expertise, and watch as those students whose outbursts arise from academic frustration remain academically frustrated.

The problems at Birmingham are ones of which the government has been aware for some time. Their escalation to the pitch we see now is largely the result of Home Office inaction – a negligence that threatens the service’s Reithian-sounding aim to punish, deter and rehabilitate. Similarly, the unravelling of several academy chains has been long-known but hidden from public view, only seeing the light of occasional scrutiny courtesy of leaks by concerned DfE employees. If a school’s purpose is to encourage the academic, personal and moral development of its students, it’s a social contract on which several private operators have reneged – though not before raiding the public till.

Perhaps all of the above are simple cases of I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish over-optimism. Whatever, I still don’t have much of a stomach for grand theft.

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About Joe Allardyce

Joe Allardyce has been a teacher for more than fifteen years. State and private; secondary and primary; man and woman: Joe has been there. Perhaps not the last one. View all posts by Joe Allardyce

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