Wednesday, January 10, 2007
What raises a cynical smile from staff room sceptics? Those ‘Come into Teaching’ adverts featuring well-scrubbed, keen, enthusiastic children hanging on every word uttered by fresh-faced inspiring teachers, or the patronising Teachers’ Awards where workaholic geeks from selective schools are slavered over by Z-list celebs.
Frank Chalk’s book ‘It’s Your Time You’re Wasting’ is the antidote to all that. It’s a no-holds barred, warts-and-all account of a year spent teaching dangerously at ‘St Jude’s’, a highly unselective school in a northern town. It doesn’t so much scrape a hole below the water line, it’s more a well-aimed Exocet missile that leaves a gaping hole in the good ship ‘education, education, education’.
Teachers will identify with one of the central themes, management in denial – the generals miles away from the front line whilst the Poor Bloody Infantry suffer in the mud-filled trenches dodging the bullets and incoming artillery shells. There’s no chink of light in this book, maybe it’s not so much a view from the trenches more peering from the stygian gloom at the bottom of an abyss.
Frank Chalk has moved from the maths department to supply teacher and there are some hilarious episodes as he tries to cope with Science, French and English. As he admits supply teachers are often fair game and concedes that Mr Blunt and Mr Green manage to keep control of their classes by engaging with their pupils and making the lessons interesting.
Why do we have schools like St Jude’s that condemn some of their brighter children to such academic misery? Well it’s all the fault of the comprehensive system. Frank Chalk’s solution? Send the brightest 20% to ‘Academic’ schools and the rest will be consigned to ‘Practical’ and ‘Mixed’ schools.
The truth is that in most of our towns and cities we don’t have a comprehensive system, once the faith and selective schools have winnowed out the wheat from Frank Chalk’s chavs we end up with schools like St Jude’s. Margaret Maden carried out research for Keele University and concluded: “When you get a concentration of children – disturbed or disadvantaged – there is a critical mass of children who will wreck any school. I will defy any teacher to teach when you have got more than 30% of kids like that in the school… Beyond a certain point, children will not succeed if they are concentrated in a school where the majority of children need to be persuaded that education matters.”
Ten years ago one of the most spectacular school failures was the Ridings in Halifax. It failed its Ofsted inspection with accounts of out of control pupils the media duly arrived and filmed the chaos. Peter Clarke was parachuted in as the headteacher to ‘turn the school around’. In his book ‘Back From the Brink’ he describes how the two faith schools and two grammar schools had succeeded in capturing most children with academic ability, 75% of pupils at Ridings had below average reading levels with 40% of Year 7 to 9 children three years behind their chronological age.
‘It’s Your Time You’re Wasting’ mines that seam of politically incorrect abuse that has replaced cogent analysis, the chavs, council estate scum and the great unwashed have got what they deserve (this is also reflected and made acceptable with characters like Vicky Pollard in ‘Little Britain’ – funny but vastly over-rated). In case you think I’m exaggerating here is Frank Chalk’s take on the dystopia that is St Jude’s and the Cherry Tree Estate; “I would say that at least 50 per cent of our parents are dreadful people for whom I have nothing but contempt.”
Apart from the toffs, society is divided in Frank Chalk’s view into the middle class who work and the underclass who don’t. Another way of looking at it is that we have a society where city financial traders earn £9 billion in annual bonuses and on the other side we consign 20% of the population to sink estates where people subsist on welfare benefits or low wages. As Richard Wilkinson pointed out in his book ‘The Impact of Inequality’ this type of wealth divide leads to a fractured, disjointed and crime-ridden society.
So far so bad, but when we come to Frank Chalk’s ‘solutions’ that’s when I really part company. How do we tackle bad behaviour in the class? Simple, pass a law in parliament and stick it up in every class. How would it be enforced? “…what we really need in charge of discipline is someone like Genghis Khan with powers to match…or a School Bouncer with the necessary legal backing.”
Predictably we get the ‘Daily Mail’ rant that, “Standards both written and spoken are unbelievably poor. Years ago people left school at the age of twelve able to read and write to a standard that would be about the average in a 16 year old today.” Ah yes, the Good Old Days… Is that why there are so many people over 50 who are illiterate and innumerate? The Good Old Days… when half children left school without any qualifications. The Good Old Days… when 1 in 8 children from grammar schools got to university but only 1 in 22,000 from secondary moderns.
How did it all happen? “The rot set in many years ago, thanks to the hordes of politically-correct educationalists and right-on teachers whose trendy theories and finger-in-the-air experimentation with what was once the finest education system in the world have conspired to smash the hopes and dreams of millions of young Britons…”
Once you get beyond the funny stories, amusing anecdotes and mad teachers this is a thoroughly depressing book, it’s just Jeremy Clarkson –lite, the Sun’s ‘White Van Man’ the regressive, reactionary, simplistic solutions of the pub bore. Simple ‘innit? Bring back the cane, reintroduce grammar schools and throw all the chavs in special schools with Genghis Khan in charge.
Maybe someone will write a humorous warts-and-all account of life in secondary schools that celebrates those teachers who under the most difficult circumstances stay and try to enthuse children with a love for learning. Frank Chalk has left the building and maybe some of those teachers who view this as some kind of ‘manifesto’ ought to follow him out of the door. Frank Chalk’s one saving grace is that he had the honesty to admit that he just couldn’t hack it.