Evidence on Behaviour?

23Jun11

And next week, the Commons Select Committe for Catering will be hearing evidence from the latest participants of the TV show “Come Dine With Me.”

A year ago the newly appointed schools minister, Nick Gibb, made clear that he did not consider teaching skills to be important for teachers. Politicians clinging to ideology and bias is hardly a news story, and you only need to ask Professor David Nutt for further examples of government meddling in the sharing of evidence. More recently Gove’s suggestions – from 50 books a year for all students to the opportunities offered to tiny percentages of pupils through the free schools programme – have angered many who have seen them as stemming from a nostalgic view of private schooling.

On Tuesday, and since then, many teachers have been particularly frustrated by the Commons Select Committee for Education. They chose to interview some of those involved with Jamie Oliver’s controversial Dream School project. If you missed it, this idea involved asking university academics, Olympic sports personalities and Shakespearean actors to ‘teach’ disgruntled and disruptive students. To put this in perspective, they worked with the students for on average an hour a week over several months. They appeared to have little advance instruction in teaching techniques, but to rely on inspiring students with their wit, charm and considerable subject knowledge. It would be fair to say that their success was variable.

So naturally these are the people who understand behaviour issues in British schools.

The Select Committee has many alternative sources of information – but they seem to have forgotten that they asked for it only 3 months ago. This wasn’t a chance to get a contrasting viewpoint to reports from OfSted that emphasize the need for a range of agencies, counselling and mental health services and the use of teaching assistants. They didn’t refer to research from the General Teaching Council, or even their own Department for Education review pointing out the dangers of focusing on details of the curriculum at the expense of classroom management, especially for staff new to the profession. Many organisations, including the Teacher Support Network, have pointed out that free schools and academies tend to encourage competition rather than cooperation – making it harder for teachers to share ideas. And this is before I point out just how many world-class researchers in education could explain their evidence-based ideas, if asked. (@DeclanFleming did a great job tweeting his responses to the video, which he has since Storified.) Why are the opinions of a handful of non-teachers being seen as having equal weight to that of education professionals and the research they have undertaken?

The focus in government often seems to be on the small number of extreme cases, rather than on the persistent low-level disruption which makes life so difficult, and learning less successful, in classrooms over the country. Maybe I’m lucky that I don’t worry about students bringing knives to school. I’d just like students to be able to focus on learning, rather than a long series of exams and resits which they see as my problem, not theirs – because they know that grades matter to the school.

Dream School was about experts inspiring young people. The problem is that, to misquote Ben Goldacre, teaching is ‘a little more complicated than that’. Of course teachers – myself included – aim to inspire students. We are enthusiastic about our subjects and hopefully knowledgable. We hope to share our interest, the ideas that captivated us in the past and often still do. It was clear as the series continued that the ‘teachers’ at Jamie’s Dream School were also passionate and expert, and in some cases students were able to recognise this, even respond to it. But it was also painfully obvious how vital the other skills of teaching are to a functioning classroom. They struggled, partly because they failed to understand that teaching is more than inspiration. The kids on the show hadn’t failed in mainstream education just because Rolf Harris had never shown them how to draw a picture, or because they’d never dissected anything supervised by Professor Robert Winston.

To me – and I suspect to many teachers – Dream School was a huge missed opportunity. I would kill for the chance to share some of those resources with my classes, even to team-teach with some of those people. Imagine if instead of trying to reach just 20 students, a completely different programme had been created. Imagine if Tinchy Stryder and Alistair Campbell, Simon Callow and Ellen MacArthur had found out what teaching is really like – not by taking on a full timetable, complete with marking, but by visiting real schools.

Imagine 12 inner city schools being offered a schedule with a dozen visitors. Imagine Rolf Harris and Mary Beard seeing 5 classes in a day, supported by regular classroom staff. Imagine if Starkey, with his resources and knowledge, had been paired with an experienced and enthusiastic, professional. Imagine what we as teachers would have gained from the chance to talk to someone at the top of their field as a peer, to swap ideas and see what they were excited about sharing with the students. Imagine how much those young people could have learned if instead of playing pretend for the camera, it had been real. Imagine if Jamie had realised that teaching, just like history, law or science, is a career and a profession in its own right.

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One Response to “Evidence on Behaviour?”

  1. For me (who sat and watched it all as well :-$) the most infuriating part of what happened during that committee hearing was when Mary Beard (who was consistently the most sensible speaker, and I think was given the least time to speak) explained what we were all thinking: “This was a TV programme, and it would be extremely dangerous to extrapolate to the general issues of classroom discipline across the country…. It is not data for the state of our schools.” The TV programme shouldn’t be used evidence to inform education policy (@52:40). Instead of exploring this further Damian Hinds MP decided he wanted to hear more about the “things to take away for education for children more generally”. He said they could have the discussion about the reality TV aspect – but they never did. This is the key point – this was a reality TV show, not a study where good, reliable evidence can be found.

    I guess the problem was that quite a few of the members of the committee had already decided to use this programme as evidence to potentially inform policy, and therefore being told this was a daft idea wasn’t really what they wanted to hear.

    What I don’t understand is: who made the decision that asking someone like David Starkey, who dominated the discussion with his comments (some of which were downright offensive), to comment on behaviour management in schools was a sensible course of action. Perhaps Jamie’s wish to setup a free school in the future (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/feb/13/jamie-oliver-dream-school-interview) may have pricked up some ears in the DfE? I don’t know.

    There is so much research available and so many educational experts who would be able to inform with far more authority and clarity. I do hope the Ed Select Committee makes the time to hear from them, and more importantly pays them *much* more heed than the participants of Dream School.

    The producers of the show stated (when looking for young people to take part) that “The aim is to take a group of young people who – for whatever reason – did not fulfil their potential within education, and put them through a series of lessons led by inspirational speakers, to try and “relight that spark.” An admirable aim, but not directly transferable to school. What took place was actually a form of expensive further education. But did you notice the words “for whatever reason”. I watched the programme and it was regularly painted that the students had been let down by the system – that assumes that the reason they all didn’t fulfil their potential was a problem with the schools they went to. The problem is that the evidence from Dream School doesn’t actually tell us whether that was the case – we will never know.


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