We must teach our students the rules of the game


The new term has seen yet more complaints that our young people are not prepared for work and too often misbehave in school. Professor Mick Waters considers the merits of these claims.

The new school year has begun with chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, complaining that too many school-leavers have the wrong attitude to work. 

He said: “Many employers complain that far too many young people looking for work have not been taught the skills, attitudes and behaviours they need to be successful in the world of work. 

“It means that they have a sloppy attitude to punctuality. They are far too relaxed in terms of meeting deadlines to produce work. It means that far too many young people are lackadaisical in the way they present themselves for work. If they dress inappropriately, speak inappropriately and have poor social skills, they are not going to get a job.”

I started to look through inspection reports on individual schools to see how widespread was the reporting of these characteristics that had led Sir Michael to these conclusions.

After the first 100 school reports I gave up. Indeed school reports by inspectors usually conclude that pupils have good attitudes, show responsibility, are self-disciplined, present themselves well, and are polite and well-mannered.

Yet, because many employers complain, Sir Michael over-rides the evidence and judgements of his own inspectors to castigate schools and colleges. 

Maybe the employers are correct; in which case the school inspectors are missing some clues in the way they seemed initially not to notice Trojan horses. 

Maybe Sir Michael’s assertion is based on flimsy evidence. Either way, we surely cannot have confidence in an inspection service that keeps getting it wrong.

Yet employers have long argued that the schooling system needs to do more to promote in young people the right outlooks for work. The CBI has openly campaigned for a schooling system that is less geared to a “conveyor belt” of exam results and more towards an “escalator” to success in a range of skills. 

Businesses cry out for young people to develop what are often called “soft skills” – teamwork, leadership, persistence, adaptability, determination, customer awareness, consideration and problem-solving, for instance. They want young people with “grit”. They argue for practical, real-life situations to be exploited in the curriculum and instead they now will have the product of Michael Gove’s slimmed down, one chance final paper exam system.

Only a few years ago, schools and employers were working together in 14 to 19 partnerships to offer qualifications including Diplomas (remember them?) which would forge a bond between scholarship, practical application and the world of work. 

Mr Gove diminished, and sometimes ridiculed, vocational courses and qualifications. The natural quest for the measurable exam results in a high-stakes accountability environment has meant fewer and fewer youngsters doing courses that might prepare them for jobs.

Despite the efforts of schools to build good attitudes, Ofsted has also recently reported that “for too many pupils the chances of being in a calm and well-ordered classroom has become something of a lottery” and a significant amount of teaching time is being lost in schools every day because of a “casual acceptance” of low-level misbehaviour.

Whispering, telling jokes, passing notes and using mobile phones are all examples – even raising eyebrows apparently. Most teachers would agree that this low-level disruption happens and creates stress. 

When Section 5 inspectors are in school the majority of pupils play the game because they do not want their school to fail. This means that inspectors do not report low-level indiscipline; they miss so much looking for what their framework tells them to see...

The Elton Report into discipline and behaviour in schools said the same thing back in 1991 (except for the eyebrows). The report is worth a read for any school leader or teacher; it proposed that the emphasis on consequences should be matched by a focus upon what was causing the disruption in the first place. It teases out the difference between misbehaviour and indiscipline; the latter is still much more prevalent in schools.

Perhaps we have got to do some re-thinking about the way we educate rather than school youngsters. The “non-negotiables” of things such as school uniform, homework, attendance and punctuality have been mantras of so-called successful practice for a long while, yet according to Sir Michael, they have not worked for many pupils.

In many schools senior leadership teams seem to engage in more conversations with pupils about top buttons than anything else. There must be something more vital.

The Department for Education (DfE) waded in recently, advising that discipline can be maintained through consequences (a nicer word than punishment) such as litter-picking, cleaning and running around the pitch. Thankfully Nicky Morgan at least recognised Mr Gove’s lack of logic in the last of these when increasing participation in sport is a priority. 

The DfE does recommend though that a suitable punishment is for pupils to be denied the “privilege” of joining in a non-uniform day. Here is the muddled thinking: if not wearing a uniform is a privilege then is wearing one a punishment, or at least a burden? 

Should we not put more emphasis on encouraging pupils to understand the importance of a dress code, wearing the appropriate apparel for the context? Should we not reason with them about why looking smart and business-like matters?

Youngsters need to understand that “dressing up” and “dressing down” are actions based on what we are doing, who we are with, and what we want them to think of us; a form of register.

That teaching about register needs to extend to speech, accent and table manners. Unfortunately this sort of talk leaves us open to accusations of social engineering and devaluing some sections of society. 

Alan Milburn’s work on social equity consistently points out that young people from poorer backgrounds struggle in new social settings, and speech, dress and manners are still being used as big social indicators. 

Many youngsters from public schools swear as much as many youngsters elsewhere. They also know when not to do so; they have been taught about register. We need to teach all pupils the rules of the game and the etiquettes needed for success.

Elton’s emphasis upon looking at why indiscipline happens and reasoning with pupils about their behaviour might have more impact than “lightning inspections”, the new answer to Ofsted’s consistently inconsistent inspection system.

Consideration of the need for pupils to know how to behave in new settings might lead us to agreeing that they all need wider experiences of museums, theatre, galleries and dining and to be shown what is appropriate behaviour in context.

This is why work experience has to be more thorough, more focused and more rigorous for pupils than it has been to date. Most teachers know this, of course, but time to devote to these things is in short supply since supervising detention, checking ties and chasing spurious targets in readiness for surprise visits by Ofsted fill their days.

We need to build real aspiration in young people. This is more than aiming for higher results in exams and even more than having a positive career outlook. Aspiration is about the young person’s worth, contribution and spirit: spirit is at the heart of the very word “aspire”. Really aspirational youngsters recognise that they need to bring their best contribution to their school and their work.

Schools need to become yet more human, focused upon the people within them as much as the institution itself. Inspired teaching of a challenging curriculum will work for most pupils. To succeed, they need to be well disposed to learning (a crow on a crossbar outside will be often more riveting than a worksheet and hold the attention of a teenager). 

Deliberate disruption though harms relationships, learning and futures. We need to sort things out considerately with youngsters in classrooms and schools. And we need to ask whether inspecting it will improve things?

Any talk of new approaches to self-discipline and questioning of tradition is always bound to raise eyebrows – oops!

  • Mick Waters is Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University and a member of The 21st Century Learning Alliance. His book, Thinking Allowed on Schooling, is out now.

Further information
The 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum that debates difficult issues to help stimulate improvement and change. Visit www.21stcenturylearningalliance.org or follow on Twitter @Learning_21C


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