This book, by Frank Chalk, is about his experiences of teaching in a difficult school in England, and the consequences of low standards for some of our worst-off children in the country.
“All these stories are true. Writing them was born out of my frustration, even despair, at seeing the majority of those who’ve passed through my classroom let down, day in, day out. A major cause of our problems is that so much bad behaviour is simply swept under the carpet and ignored. It lets down kids who start life with little chance in the first place.
“The litter left lying inside and outside the school has to be seen to be believed. Crisp packets, sweet wrappers, empty fizzy drink cans, bits of food from the canteen and empty plastic bottles are everywhere. Many teachers are afraid to ask a pupil to pick rubbish up. To do so is to invite indignation, even anger. ‘F* ck off!’ is a typical response.
“I put up daily with the chaos, disorder and ear-splitting racket that is lunch time at St Jude’s. The canteen is a complete mess; the floor is a mushy carpet of bits of food and drink and the odd recognisable item like a squashed sausage roll. Every table is covered in mess and piles of unreturned trays. The noise is deafening, as crockery and cutlery spills hither and thither. It really is complete and utter anarchy. There’s a heaving, pushing, jostling semi-queue. Pupils swig brightly-coloured drinks, making them completely hyper in the afternoon. I am doing nothing more than crowd control. ‘F* ck off, Chalk, yer w* nker!’ someone shouts.
The Head can walk straight past groups of fighting pupils and carry on a conversation whilst torrents of foul abuse are being shouted from all directions. The school always reminds me a bit of the Titanic, with the SMT sipping champagne in their room, assuring each other that all is going splendidly, whilst we sail straight towards an enormous iceberg. Far too many incidents are simply brushed under the carpet, as it is much easier to hold meetings and presentations rather than support those teachers below them who are trying to improve discipline. The phrase ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ was used of mulish generals in charge of British troops during World War I, but it applies equally to modern teaching. The lack of ability of those in charge to get a grip is one of the major problems in the state education system.
After lunch, Year 9 have dosed themselves up with sugary snacks and fizzy drinks at lunchtime. They ignore my seating plan and sit together at the back. They are used to getting their own way, fighting over seats and enjoying the mayhem caused by not being made to sit in a fixed place each lesson. Five of them eventually do as they’re told. Unfortunately, I can’t shift Darren, the sixth reprobate. I’ve tried telling him quietly and I’ve tried telling him firmly. Both attempts have failed. He is now holding on to his desk, theatrically, and hysterically shouting, ‘Help! Rape!’ at the top of his voice. It is immensely frustrating, all of this. Actually, it’s more than frustrating: it’s heartbreaking. About a dozen of this class are behaving now; they have got their worksheets from the front and started them, following the instructions I’ve written on the board. I keep my voice calm, even though inside I am seething. I have seen this situation many times before and it annoys me greatly.
I quietly tell him that I will be making a phone call home.
‘Do you think I care?’ he screams back. ‘Phone me mother! I couldn’t give a f* ck.’
That last bit is said with a mocking smirk.
Dishing out the pens has taken another ten minutes, so 20 minutes gone.
Then, all of a sudden, the atmosphere is shattered by a screech. It’s Cherelle, and she’s furious with Spencer; she’s attempting to pull his hair out and cursing him in industrial terms. Now, Cherelle storms out, a handful of Spencer’s hair in her fist.
‘Come on, Darren, we’re going to sit at the front,’ I announce, removing his coat from the back of his chair. He grabs for it and furiously attempts to wrench it free, but there is a loud tearing sound. I am left holding one arm while Ashley tumbles back and falls to the ground holding the rest of it. Darren is now absolutely livid.
‘You f* cking tosser!’ he yells with rage. ‘I’m gonna get me Dad and he’ll batter you!’ He storms out of the room. ‘My dad’s gonna batter you!’ This is a phrase I must have heard a hundred times during my career.
Wayne, walks in (ridiculously late) with dog mess on his shoe. Because he is such a fool, he proceeds to wipe the shoe on another boy’s trousers. It’s a revolting thing to do, but the reaction is bizarre: the other boy immediately starts screaming (he is, after all, only 15) and running around like the proverbial headless chicken. Now the offending material is on his bag, on the stool he was sitting on, on his neighbour’s bag, on her chair, the work bench and so on. Half the class are join in with the screaming. It is utter chaos.
When the clock on the wall indicates that there are only ten minutes of the lesson left, everyone starts putting coats on and closing books. ‘Oi! Get back to work. We will pack up two minutes before the end of the lesson.’ There is uproar. They always pack up ten minutes before. Bearing in mind each lesson is 50 minutes long, and that the first and the final 10 minutes are wasted, this is depressing in the extreme. ‘The clock is slow.’ It isn’t. ‘We need at least ten minutes!’ At least half of them have already started to put their arms through their coat sleeves surreptitiously. I go round and take their books (asking them to pass them to the front is like asking for book-throwing mayhem). Every exercise book is covered with graffiti. Then the bell goes. I reckon we did fifteen minutes useful work out of a one-hour lesson. Five or six kids destroyed the lesson for all the others.
Those kids will destroy every lesson this week, this term and this school year, for the simple reason that they enjoy doing so and there is nothing to stop them. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are allowing them to destroy the lives of their fellow pupils. I end another school day bubbling with frustration and impotent rage. It’s been a day, once again, marked by a total absence of discipline and, as a result, effective teaching. If you work in one of these schools, you will know that such scenes are a daily occurrence.
In Maths, many of our pupils cannot do even the simplest sum. Some cannot do the simplest sum even with the aid of a calculator: for example, you will ask the question ‘What is 9 x 7?’ They will type it in wrongly as ‘9 x 77’ and claim that the answer is 693. They have no idea of the relative size of numbers and do not sense instinctively that this cannot be right. Instead, they accept whatever the display says.
Pupils’ writing is often absolute gibberish. Half are unable to read, write or spell properly when they leave. They cannot punctuate or structure a sentence. The country’s biggest exam board has reported that pupils use ‘text-speak’ like ‘m8’ [for ‘mate’], ‘u’ [for ‘you’] and ‘2’ [for ‘too’ or ‘to’] in GCSE papers which are also littered with swearing and slang contractions such as ‘gonna’, ‘wanna’ and ‘shoulda’. Apart from all the spelling mistakes and lack of punctuation – many a story is one, long two-page sentence – it simply doesn’t mean anything. The story jumps around from one thought to another without any continuity. This boy is 15 but his effort is worse than that which a decent nine-year-old could produce. It contains many of the usual horrors. ‘Dose’ instead of ’does’. ‘Is’nt’ instead of ‘isn’t’. ‘Their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ all hopelessly intermingled. 12,000 hours of full-time education and we have not even managed to teach him to write. There’s something very sad about the waste of so many years of potential learning.
Our main problem is the behaviour of our children. When our pupils arrive at the age of eleven, their attention span is often very short. Many, perhaps most, are unable to sit still and keep quiet for more than a few seconds at a time when these are the basic prerequisites, surely, of successful learning. When we try to introduce them to the concept of listening, it is a whole new skill to learn. This may sound unbelievable but it is absolutely true. Many straightforward tasks become impossible. They cannot listen to a set of instructions or tackle a problem that has more than one stage. Instead of persevering with a question, if the answer is not obvious, they will immediately shout out ‘I don’t geddit!’ or ‘Can’t do it!’ Many of the children swear loudly throughout a lesson, partly to shock, partly because they hear these words so often that they have no idea that there is anything wrong with them and partly because they have never been taught any self-control. They react instinctively, by shouting or striking out at the source of an irritation.
Truancy is rife. In 2005, figures from Truancy Watch showed that 50,000 children skip school each day. We have a school uniform which the pupils are supposed to wear, but a visitor would be hard-pressed to say what it is. The Deputy Head in Charge of Discipline is reluctant to enforce it as he thinks it’s a good idea to allow the pupils to ‘express themselves in a way that reflects their different outlooks and cultures.’ Vandalism and graffiti have become commonplace. Simple things such as arriving for lessons on time, bringing a pen with you and doing your homework have become unimportant. Our pupils are late for school, time and time again, without any real punishment. As we so often do, we are taking the easy option but selling them short: punctuality is so important in the workplace and our touchy-feely slackness will count against them in a few short years.
Kids misbehave simply because it is more fun than behaving and, in many cases, there is nothing stopping them. After 12 years of full-time education, costing £72,000, we are not turning out youngsters who understand how to behave, who can listen to and follow instructions, who are basically literate and numerate and who are punctual, the entry-level requirements for 80% of the jobs on offer in this country.
Lewis is in Year 9. He has set off the fire alarm at least twice and openly boasts of the windows he has broken in the school. His vandalism runs into thousands of pounds. The behavioural problems take up so much time that there isn’t much left for actual teaching. Lessons are constantly disrupted by groups of kids arriving late for no real reason, not to mention the hordes of ne’er-do-wells who skip lessons and roam the school in packs, looking for trouble. For well-behaved pupils, who actually want to learn but who sit there quietly being ignored, with their hands up, their life-chances ebb away.
To bribe or to discipline?
In the staffroom, Miss Wade is giving the new student teacher some pearls of advice. She is telling her how to get a pupil to move if they do not want to. This is a fairly classic problem in the classroom. ‘You should always try to avoid a confrontation,’ she babbles. ‘So what I do is I move someone else at the same time so they don’t think that you are just picking on them, or I say something like ‘if you move, I’ll let you use the coloured pens.’ The business of negotiating with the kids, or bribing them. We’re told to change our ways of teaching to suit the kids. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?
Mr Blunt is a brilliant teacher. Mr Blunt is tall, strongly-built and exudes an air of authority like few others can. A no-nonsense disciplinarian, he has taught here for the last twelve years. He has a vast knowledge and interest in his subject, which is history. He is aware of everything that is going on in the classroom and exerts control constantly but effortlessly. He has zero tolerance for every form of poor behaviour and relentlessly pursues miscreants. He tries constantly to open the kids’ minds to how much better they can become.
Every day, around the UK, teachers are getting assaulted; I’ve been threatened myself and plenty of my colleagues have been attacked. Miss Keebles’ tyres were slashed while her car was left in the school car park overnight. Several teachers have been assaulted at St Jude’s, as they have at many schools.. Often these cases go unreported. In 2006, one pupil slapped a teacher and carried out the attack while another filmed it on his mobile phone. Last year, there were twelve assaults on teachers in four months. One boy, who injured a woman by barging her into a door and then threatened to kill her, was suspended for 15 days and then let back in. The level of violence in our schools is frightening, both in its frequency and its severity, and is getting worse on both counts. Jade, a 12-year-old; was attacked by another girl with a cigarette lighter. Her face was badly burned. Shanni was slashed across the face by another 12-year-old girl, who used the blade from a pencil sharpener in the attack. Shanni will probably be scarred for life. Natasha, aged 15, was attacked with a pair of scissors.
As I walk across the playground to the main doors, a small boy – I think it is Kyle from Year 9, but I can’t be sure, shouts ‘Chalk, you f* cking w* nker!’ before dodging round a corner, cackling.
I have left the world of education, and I’m not going back. The constant, low-level lapping of the waves, the rising tide of disillusionment, finally brought me to the realisation that I was wasting my time.”