What public interest?

Last week, Angela Mason was up before the General Teaching Council for filming children’s misbehaviour for a Channel 4 shockumentary, under cover as a supply teacher. According to the BBC:

Over a period of about six months, she went into 18 schools in London and the north of England … and secretly filmed in six of them.

She says she saw chairs being smashed, pupils fighting in class and that she was sworn at by pupils and was falsely accused of touching them. Other bad behaviour by pupils included verbal abuse, general rowdiness and the use of mobile phones or CD players.

Teaching sometimes became impossible, she said.

The day before the film was shown, Leeds City Council applied for an injunction to stop it, but they lost. Coincidentally, the judgment has just turned up on Bailii, and although it’s a relief to see that Mr Justice Munby did at least assert children’s rights to privacy, it’s astonishing that he believed there was an overriding public interest in letting Channel 4 go ahead.

The film did its job in adding fuel to the fashionable moral panic. Everyone agreed that the youth of today are abhorrent and their parents despicable: music to the ears of those who want to see the state step in to micro-manage the upbringing of children. I’m sure I don’t really need to spend time here digging out quotes dating back to St Augustine and beyond, bewailing the parlous state of the nation’s young. In any case, far too many people seem to believe that ‘it’s different now’. This time, we really do have A Crisis – an inexplicable epidemic of badness; bad children and bad parents.

I don’t know where Ms Mason was teaching back in those good old days when children behaved themselves, but I suspect it wasn’t Islington, home to two of the schools that featured in the Channel 4 documentary. In the East London schools of the 70s, immediately post-ROSLA every classroom had its share of the sons of the Kray henchmen, there was a running gag about augmenting furniture supplies by nipping along to Islington Green School and catching chairs and desks as they came through the window, and a couple of my friends gave up teaching altogether when the deputy head was stabbed in the back by a pupil he’d just excluded. (Note to the Vice Anglais devotees: corporal punishment wasn’t abolished until 1987. Go figure.)

What really is extraordinary is that someone who has not taught for 30 years can simply sign on with an agency and walk straight into a classroom as if she had only left it the previous day. Would anyone want to see a locum GP or solicitor who hadn’t practised for even one decade, let alone three?

Why did she only film in one third of the schools? Given that her agenda was to provide evidence for the documentary in order to prove that children really have gone feral in the UK, one would have thought she would film in all of them. Could it be that there wasn’t enough in the other twelve schools to merit the attention of her little camera, cunningly disguised as a button? And did she, or the film-makers, have any moral qualms about the observer-expectancy effect?

Yes, there are serious problems in the education system. Attempts at reform have been resisted and fudged. Too many schools are dependent on supply teachers (even ones who haven’t taught for decades) or even classroom assistants. The SEN system is a nightmare. Children (and teachers) are hemmed in by tests and targets, but protest is ignored. It’s a mess – and that’s without even considering whether a factory-sized school, or any school at all, is the right kind of place for some, or all, children. And now the government is planning to prolong the agony even further.

Quite how any film that shows children behaving dreadfully contributes one iota to the education debate is beyond me. It’s not bad children we should be worrying about; it’s the victimisation of children and teachers alike through the state education system.

Update: Talking of factory-sized schools

A new generation of “super-size” schools is being created by the Government, sparking fears that they will lead to alienated pupils.


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