Katharine had been teaching in inner-city schools for over a decade when she wrote ‘To Miss With Love’. Groupwork and games were required in lessons; bullying and fights were prevalent. In one incident, a stone is thrown at a teacher; in another, a weapon is brought into school for a fight. The book sparked intense controversy and a national debate about disruption and underachievement in English schools. These problems have not disappeared. Republishing extracts online, in a series of three posts (Autumn, Spring and Summer Terms), reveals the unintended consequences of permissive behaviour systems, even in schools rated ‘good’ by Ofsted.
“I teach because I love children and I want to improve their lives at school. So many of us, though, cannot see the problems ingrained in our education system. The majority of children across England are in schools like the one in this book, where fights happen every day – and some are in schools that are far worse.”
Monday 26 August
I do love coming in on exam results day. Nothing quite like watching your kids succeed and seeing their faces shine with delight! And this year, our school got 57% A*-C grades, which is up from last year, so we’re happy. That’s about average for England, so we’re figure we’re doing pretty well, and we get graded ‘good’ by Ofsted.
Monday 2 September
Staff gather in the dining hall, excited to be back, at our first meeting of the year. The Head begins: ‘OFSTED. They’ll be coming this year. The only question is: when?’ There is absolute silence. A good report from OFSTED is crucial if we are to remain considered to be a good school. Parents fight to get their children a place here. Some six to eight children apply for each place. But a bad OFSTED report could ruin all that…
Wednesday 4 September
Some teachers are in at 7am every day, and most of us won’t get out until 6pm, dragging a pile of books home with us. Mr Hadenough, one of our Maths teachers, grabs my arm. He’s 28 and has been teaching here three years. ‘Same old nightmare last night. I was with 8.4 and they were going crazy. I just couldn’t get them to stop. A few of them jumped out the window, and then a fight broke out and I couldn’t pull them apart… I just hope I get a good night’s sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll take some sleeping pills.’ I think about the countless teachers I’ve known over the years who have had trouble sleeping. What are we? War veterans?
Thursday 12 September
It’s the end of the day. Mr Hadenough is walking past. He’s a good guy and a good teacher. I notice he’s got a nasty bruise on his head. I stop him and ask him what happened.
‘You know Furious?’ Furious has a different pattern in his hair every week. He disrupts lessons, regularly gets into fights, and aged fifteen is on the brink of permanent exclusion. ‘He threw a stone at me today.’ I remember the one-on-one chat I had with Furious last year, telling him to stop his dreadful behaviour, asking him whether he wanted to end up in a PRU – Pupil Referral Unit – where children go when they have been excluded from mainstream education. It was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now, that what he needs is strict discipline. As it is, Furious won’t be punished at all. What does this say to him – and all the other children?
Monday 23 September
Monday morning, and Munchkin, a little Year 8 boy with squidgy cheeks, in in tears, holding his glasses in his hands. I approach him: ‘Hey, Munchkin. You OK? What happened?’
He wipes his face and points to a bunch of Year 10s on the other side of the playground. ‘They took my lunch money.’
Tears stream down Munchkin’s face. ‘I don’t know. There was a whole lot of them. They surrounded me. And then my money was gone.’
I squeeze his shoulder. ‘You sure you don’t have any idea who it could be?’ Munchkin shakes his head.
Monday 30 September
Monday briefing, where the head gives the staff what they need to survive the week. ‘Morning!’ Mr Goodhart beams. ‘Lots on this week, as normal. I’d like to remind everyone about what Ofsted will be looking for. We simply cannot have a situation where teachers are teaching and pupils are listening.’ I sit up in my chair, not entirely sure I’ve heard correctly. ‘Groupwork, games, fun in lessons. Have a very productive week!’ We cannot have teachers teaching and children listening. That’s our motto.
Tuesday 1 October
Two girls rush part me in lunchbreak. One grabs the other’s hair and punches her. Thumps are flying. They are steaming with anger. Without thinking, I leap between them. But punches keep being thrown over and around me as I get tangled up, flailing back and forth, stumbling, lurching. A crowd of kids gathers quickly, watching, shouting, egging on the girls. Their best friends are screaming. All I can hear is screeching and howling: ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’
‘Stop! Stop!’ I hear from the sidelines. Cavalier raises his voice. ‘Stop, man! You’re hitting Miss. You gotta stop, man!’ Finally, another teacher comes to my rescue and we pull the girls apart.
Friday 4 October
Furious sits down on a chair in my office. His foster parents sit next to him. Mr Inevitable points at Furious. ‘He’s got himself in trouble again, hasn’t he?’ ‘Yes, he was involved in a fight last week. And then there was the incident with Mr Hadenough with the stone, which was just appalling.’
Furious jumps up. ‘It wasn’t me, man! What are you accusing me for?’ He pulls his face into a grimace, staring at me.
‘Furious’ report shows rudeness, truancy, fighting and defiance at school.’
‘Oh my Lord,’ Ms Desperate cries out. ‘What this boy is doing to me! What are we going to do?’
I suggest various ways of disciplining the boy at home. His mother is nearly in tears, at her wit’s end.
Tuesday 8 October
I’m in the canteen when Munchkin comes up to me. ‘They took my phone Miss,’ he gulps, ‘They took it.’
‘Who took your phone?’
Munchkin shakes his head. ‘I dunno. It just went. I had my bag over there. It’s gone.’
We search his bag. No phone. I ask kids sitting around the table. Did they see anything? Does anyone know anything? No one knows a thing. Or no one will admit to knowing.
‘Miss’ Munchkin swallows hard, trying not to let the tears out again – ‘I got that phone for my birthday last week.’
We have nothing to go on. Little Munchkin is waiting for me, waiting for some good news, waiting for me to tell him I can fix it, I can get his phone back. I shake my head. His face drops, bottom lip sticking out. And the tears began to trickle down his cheeks.
Wednesday 23 October
Broom shouted at me to get a life when he threw me out of school at 7.30 tonight. Back at home, it’s 10pm and I’ve been working since 7.30am, working non-stop for over fourteen hours.
Friday 25 October
I pass Stoic, a tall Guyanese boy in Year 13. He’s been at the school since Year 7 and will go to University next year. The teachers love him. ‘Morning, Stoic.’
He looks up, smiling. ‘Morning, Miss.‘
He’s reading a newspaper. He leaps up to hold a door open for me and stands to the side. ‘Well, thank you sir!’ I beam. How lovely. How wonderful that we still manage to have pupils like Stoic.
Monday 4 November
A pupil has just been hauled out of his lesson for shouting ‘Idiot’ in his teacher’s face. Mr Hadenough approaches. ‘That class is completely out of control. The worst two were removed. But that still left six of them all shouting at me from different directions.’ He is shaking. I ask him if he is OK. Tears start to well up in his eyes. ‘They wouldn’t stop. I might as well have been invisible.’ The fire alarm goes off. Kids pour out of classrooms, some running, swarming everywhere, laughing and screaming. They love it when the fire alarm gets pulled. We have no idea who set it off.
Monday 18 November
A bunch of Year 11 girls is doubled up in hysterics. Stoic appears at my door. He is fiercely proud and polite, and is top of every top set. ‘I’m sorry to have disturbed you Miss,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry about the noise. Well, it was me those girls were laughing at.’ Astonishing. He’s apologising for being laughed at. Well, that’s Stoic for you.
‘I tripped as I was going down the stairs. So they laughed. You know how it is, Miss.’
‘Stoic, what makes you the way you are?’
‘I don’t know Miss. I just want to do well.’
‘OK, but why do you want to do well?’
‘I don’t know Miss.’ Stoic searches for an answer.
‘Is it your parents? Do they insist you do well?
Stoic thinks about it. ‘I suppose so, Miss.’
‘You think they’re silly, don’t you?’ I smile wryly.
‘No, Miss, I don’t. I used to try to tell them to listen to the teachers and do their work, but now…’ Stoic looks defeated. ‘Well, now I just get on with my work and ignore them.’
‘Don’t you mind them laughing at you?’ I probe.
‘No. They can do what they like.’
‘You stay the way you are, OK Stoic? There’s nothing better in life than being different. How’s the Oxford application going? If anyone deserves a place there, then it’s you.’
Monday 25 November
‘Fight!’ scream some of the kids in my class. ‘Fight!’ Everyone jumps up and runs to the window. It’s Furious and Cavalier. They’re surrounded by what looks like a pack of wolves, eager for blood, but who are in fact children. As I instinctively run towards the middle of the fight, I see blood. Cavalier’s forehead is pouring with it. Blood is shooting out from his forehead in every direction. My heart is racing. Furious is still swinging punches. I trip and fall backwards, my hands covered in blood. ‘Walk him away,’ I yell. ‘That way!’ I turn. ‘Go and get me another teacher. Now!’ the kids gawp at me, ‘I said now!’ I’m bellowing, my voice cracking. One scampers to the main building. With Cavalier still in my grasp, I turn to some of the others: ‘Find me the weapon.’ Then I march Cavalier to the office. As we walk, the blood gushes down his forehead. I hand him over. I then rush back to my abandoned class, still shaking from the ordeal. ‘Miss was right in the middle of the action! Rah! Miss is hard, man!’ Still shaking on the inside, I say: ‘Remember: don’t mess with me. I’m as hard as nails.’
Monday 9 December
The weapon was a metal bar. It wasn’t Furious who brought it in. It was Cavalier. He brought it in to protect himself against Furious, and his injury was caused by his own metal bar. Perhaps they will never to return to school – the boy who brought in the metal bar to defend himself, and the boy who inspired such fear in him that he did so. What about the other kids? He can’t be bringing a weapon into school…
Tuesday 10 December
I’m walking along the corridor when I see Munchkin standing outside his Science class. I raise my eyebrows. ‘You been sent out, Munchkin?’ He bows his head. ‘I saw you outside your technology lesson the other day as well. Why are you suddenly getting kicked out of your lessons?’ His eyes are fixed firmly on the floor.
Thursday 12 December
We thought for sure Stoic would get in. If he doesn’t, who does? ‘He was number seven. They took six. They said his essays were the best they have ever seen from a state school student. The best! What does that mean? He’s the best but we won’t have him?’ The best the tutors had ever seen from a state-school applicant. From a state school applicant. The words reverberate around my head. What are they teaching in the private schools? I guess they aren’t chasing loads of bad behaviour. I guess they’re actually teaching for entire lessons. I guess they plan for what makes for good learning, not games and fun. I guess they simply live in a different world.
Friday 20 December
I open some Christmas cards. One is from Stoic.
Dear Miss, I just want to say thanks. I would not have got an A* if it wasn’t for you. To have such an inspirational teacher around makes coming to school worthwhile. From Stoic.