It’s all our fault, apparently...

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Dr Bernard Trafford wishes that some ministers and education commentators would just ‘shut the hell up’…

As half the country was returning to school after half-term last week, I was just beginning mine. On February 18 I picked up a copy of The Times. On a single page there were no fewer than three reports about the damage school is doing to children.

A British Psychological Society conference about physical contact concluded that refusing to touch pupils “is abuse”. So afraid are teachers and schools of dealing with allegations of inappropriate touching that heads now (we’re told) prohibit any physical contact with children. But this is psychologically damaging; touch is absolutely essential: “Denying it is like denying a child oxygen.” So we’re messing this one up.

Then there was the suggestion that schools are probably behind the national rise in eating disorders. Clinical psychologist Tara Porter said that “a militant fixation with healthy eating in schools is fuelling anorexia and obesity”.

There we were, thinking we were doing the right thing, persuading kids to eat healthily and doing our bit to combat obesity. But by being too assertive about it, we’re apparently driving kids into anorexic obsessions with healthy or minimal eating.

Dr Porter concluded that restriction inevitably leads to bingeing and that “there should be no good or bad foods. Slim and healthy people eat chocolate or fried food, and this is okay, as long as portion sizes are reasonable”. Our fault again.

But surely teaching’s improved over the years? It appears not. We’ve been gullible in schools, swallowing daft ideas like learning styles and brain gym. According to that expert on teaching, schools minister Nick Gibb (speaking to postgraduate teaching students at Buckingham University), teacher training colleges have been peddling “neuro-myths” about children’s brains and their so-called learning styles. He criticised the “myth of too much teacher-talk”, slamming schools and teacher training institutions for forbidding teachers to address the class for more than 20 per cent of the lesson: “As if listening to a knowledgeable adult would harm the education of pupils.”

There we were, thinking we were being helpful, and all the time we’ve been screwing up children’s lives! So next time government and/or the health lobby tells us to do something about teaching better or reducing obesity, let’s ignore them. It’ll just be a silly bandwagon, as Mr Gibb says.

He likes old-fashioned teaching. So let’s push kids around when they’re naughty and enfold them in warm cuddles them when they’re unhappy: who cares if the odd child or parent wrecks a teacher’s career by making an allegation?
Moreover, schools should have ignored Ofsted’s insistence on structured lessons. The minister says we should talk at kids. In fact let’s do nothing but talk. Bore the pants off them early in life: it’ll train them for the rest of their lives so, when they’re older, they can listen to ministers talking claptrap without fidgeting.

The confused thinking that led some schools to insist on a visual, audio or kinaesthetic label against every child’s name (so teachers could systematically address all three learning styles in every lesson) is no more ludicrous than Mr Gibb’s insistence that we ignore it. Teachers know children learn in different ways: we need to help auditory learners to get better at dealing with purely visual stimuli: kinaesthetic learners who prefer to use their hands must learn to sit and listen. But they still need variety – and to bore them to tears by talking at them endlessly won’t help.

If the minister no longer wants schools to go overboard on the latest “bright idea”, his minions should stop pushing them to adopt it. Stop demanding that schools cure all society’s ills and blaming them when they don’t. And end hostile accountability measures that drive undesirable types of conformity and perverse incentives. Oh and, by the way, could we ask ministers who don’t know what they’re talking about just to shut the hell up?

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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