Can't read, won't read

Failing School, Failing City: The Reality of Inner City Education

Martin Johnson <em>Jon Carpenter

You've heard of the neighbours from hell? Those monstrous underclass characters who like nothing better than making their own neighbours' lives a constant and painful misery? Well, this book is about their offspring, who drive their teachers to distraction or early departure to pastures somewhat more civilised. Only those experienced teachers whom the author describes as "strong" have any hope of establishing and maintaining a reasonable learning environment.

The author provides eye-witness accounts of actual lessons, in coruscating and shocking detail; at the same time, he is careful to explain that his book is about a very small proportion of secondary schools, the 3 per cent that have failed Ofsted inspections. Yet many of his observations will apply to far more schools than that. His central point is that the educational experts have got the reasons for schools' struggling wrong and seldom discuss the absolutely crucial factor of the quality of pupil intake. The children for whom such schools exist are so anti-social that to pretend that they can be educated in the generally accepted sense, without radical and appropriate reform, is futile. What teachers do in such schools is to survive by containing incipient revolt. These pupils are so disordered, so lacking in motivation, so incapable of seeing any point in school that, unless their attitudes and behaviour can be hugely improved, all the fine talk about "results" is so much hot air.

The author - who teaches in such a school - is hostile to Ofsted, arguing that its reports are both invalid and unreliable. The "special measures" it prescribes for improvement are as unhelpful as they are counter-productive. Indeed one could characterise this book as the story of a conflict between a committed, compassionate career teacher (he is the next president of the NAS/UWT) struggling to cope with the realities of working with the underclass, and the apparatchiks of Ofsted.

In preparation for this review, I asked Ofsted to send me its prescription for improvements. From Failure to Success is a glossy brochure that claims to describe some of the failing schools that have made some progress. On the one hand, we have the hard, coal-face reality; on the other, the bland rhetoric of the managerial class. There is much talk of senior managements, action plans, monitoring and external advice, but there seems little point of contact between the protagonists. This is most clearly seen in Ofsted's attitude to indiscipline and its description of the unspeakable delinquency with which the author and his colleagues have to cope as "unsatisfactory". If Ofsted is to help the underclass school, it needs to discover a far more appropriate vocabulary than this.

Why does the underclass exist? Martin Johnson's argument is that the chief causal factor is social class. Unemployment, poor housing and exclusion from wealth and power have generated that overwhelming sense of alienation out of which the underclass is created. These people have no hope, experience intense anger and lack the vital ability that the successful use to mediate their feelings: language. This underscores a tendency towards aggressive, self-defeating behaviour.

So why is it that only a very small proportion of the working class have sunk to this level? Could it possibly be that the author makes too little of the rapidly increasing family fragmentation that is leaving more and more children without a father figure on whom to model their behaviour? And could it be connected to intelligence, of which the author makes nothing at all? After all, ours are intensely competitive, meritocratic times which demand an increasingly sophisticated response to society and the state; and the truth is that human ability is differently endowed, however much the egalitarians dislike it. So the underclass is the price we pay for creating such a society and failing to provide this group with an education appropriate to their needs and capacities.

Johnson makes constructive suggestions about how we might do something to remedy this deficiency. He believes that the national curriculum is far too prescriptive and narrow in focus and that it should be replaced by a "statement of entitlement". There should be a renewed emphasis on literacy and basic skills, expressive and creative arts, meaningful craft lessons and appropriate political and social education. It's that last bit that would worry me. Such a prescription landed us with such "loony left" subjects as peace studies, grossly permissive sex education and the moral inanities of anti-racist education.

But perhaps the most compelling proposal concerns how the curriculum should be delivered and in what context. He rejects the current notion of teacher survival via the 3 Cs: cajolery, compromise and conciliation; he castigates the child-centred progressivism that has led to classrooms resembling Wild-West shows; and he plumps firmly for what Ofsted barely mentions at all - teacher power. Either the teacher defines the situation or the pupils do. There can be no compromise on that.

This is a thoughtful, well-argued book, which makes a valuable contribution to the sterile curriculum debate. All teachers and parents should read it, though it is unlikely to impress the present gimmick-a-day, muddle-headed government, which cannot even grasp the nettle over selection.

Ray Honeyford, a former headmaster, writes for the "Salisbury Review"

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war