By Pat Yarker
Before the General Election Channel 5 screened Classroom Chaos, a video-diary-cum-documentary produced by Roger Graef.
Graef pioneered so-called fly-on-the-wall documentaries for television. He has a track-record as a maker of programmes which go behind the scenes, take important issues seriously, stimulate and inform public debate and sometimes help bring about significant reforms. Over twenty years ago, his series about the police in action led to big improvements in the way they treat rape-survivors.
The idea for “Classroom Chaos” involved a teacher signing up with a “supply” agency in order to be available to take classes in various schools where the usual class-teacher was absent. She would employ a hidden camera and microphone, and record what happened in her classes without the knowledge or consent of the schools, their staff or the students. Extracts from these recordings, suitably doctored to prevent the identification of any individual save the teacher herself, would make up the bulk of the programme. Graef defended the use of clandestine recording as the only way to show what was really happening in schools. But this short-cut to collecting evidence would prove misconceived and counter-productive.
An election was looming. The Tories were making political capital out of a recent report from the official school-inspection agency Ofsted which suggested that the proportion of schools where behaviour was poor had increased under Labour. (Ofsted declared behaviour was good in three-quarters of all schools in 1997, whereas in 2004 behaviour was good in about two-thirds.) Graef’s programme looked poised to intervene powerfully in a crucial debate.
It is a debate that has continued now the election is over, with New Labour pledging to “crack down” on ill-discipline in schools.
Just before the screening Graef made several claims in a newspaper-interview. “It’s an important national story,” he told the Guardian (27 April 2005). “There’s a general collapse of respect for teachers and authority. Kids are controlling the corridors.” Choice moments of confrontation from the secretly-recorded footage were used to trail the programme extensively, and it was “pre-reviewed” in the press. However, all the pre-publicity may in the end have served to diminish rather than build the impact of the programme.
Supply-teachers by definition tend not to have built a relationship with the classes they cover, are not established in the schools they arrive at, and have not prepared the work to be done in the lesson. They face singular difficulties.
The teacher involved in this programme was also burdened by having been absent from classrooms for some three decades. Returning without benefit of new training and familiarisation, unsurprisingly she had a very hard time.
The footage she recorded in a number of different schools to which she was sent by her agency was edited to bring together a variety of examples of bad behaviour on the part of some students: swearing, fighting, paper-throwing, refusal to listen, refusal to follow standard classroom instructions or conform to recognisably-ordinary expectations.
It was easy to see how the teacher’s own actions and demeanour brought about some of this behaviour, and how she could have improved the situation by doing things differently. But it was also clear that numbers of students deliberately behaved in ways which prevented teaching and learning from taking place, and which were unacceptable in their own right.
A furore could have been expected. It didn’t happen. John Dunford, General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, fulminated about the “sensationalist” content of the programme and castigated the teacher: “All you have to do is teach badly and the children will behave accordingly,” he said, forgetting that teaching is a collective endeavour as well as an individual one. Teachers should be supported to do the best job they can, and schools should have the resources they need to give that support.
However, the programme also failed to make this argument. In contrast to the floundering pseudonymous supply-teacher, it presented a school in Inner London whose Head and Deputies had apparently instituted a culture of respect and hard work by being highly-visible around the school, making boys and girls use separate entrances, and picking up on even minor infringements of rules in a firm but fair manner. There was no time in the programme to investigate the values and drawbacks of such an approach. There was certainly no clandestine filming of classrooms in this school.
Steve Sinnott, the incoming NUT leader, challenged the programme’s methodology and ethics. He acknowledged the problem of “low-level” disruption but condemned the use of covert recording. The NASUWT leadership took a similar stand. All but ignored was what the programme-makers might have expected to be of central concern: the unacceptable behaviour taking place in some classrooms and the reasons which brought it about.
In his pre-screening interview Graef attacked the exam-focused culture common in many state-schools. He criticised the centrally-prescribed lesson-content, the dull downloadable lesson-plans and the restrictive curriculum teachers were forced to follow. He noted the way such constraints drained life and excitement out of teaching and learning. In his view there has to be an exchange of trust and a mutual valuing between students and staff in order to make learning enjoyable and hence minimise disruption.
These were views teacher unions might have been expected to endorse. Why did their leaders not argue for the funding and resources necessary to bring such a situation about? Did they think Graef’s programme simply played into the hands of back-to-basics politicians calling for even more authoritarian measures? Or were they more concerned not to rock New Labour’s boat than to stand up for the interests of their members? For whatever reason, it was easy to focus on how the programme had been made rather than on how years of New Labour education-policies have brought about such a degree of student-antagonism, and sanctioned increasingly-authoritarian responses from some schools.
The Teacher Support Network reports a significant rise in calls to its helpline from teachers worn down by the “low-level” disruption noted by Steve Sinnott. It’s not the drama of classroom chaos but the tediousness of backchat, work-avoidance and clashes over who has the right to speak and when in the classroom, which sap teacher morale. From the student’s perspective the school experience can be more and more alienating.
Underfunded as they are, if schools refuse students a genuine voice, separate friend from friend by imposing so-called “ability” setting, label students by levels attained in tests, narrow the educational offer made them accordingly, avoid dealing with the racist, sexist and classist aspects of day-to-day school-life and persist in requiring teachers to see their job in terms of delivery, elements of which can be done just as well by the unqualified, disruption must be expected. It will be, in the eyes of some of those subjected to such a regime, a rational response.
Unacceptable in itself, never to be romanticised (for we remain responsible for what we do), disruptive behaviour in school may carry nevertheless an element of inarticulate resistance to what is justly felt to be intolerable. Had Classroom Chaos found a way to make these points, it would have contributed to a vital debate.