Have a think about this image before thinking about booths or equality in education. The question to answer is not if we need more “love”, it is about how we show what and who we value. How many of our students can see their life choices and real needs reflected in what schools offer? How many of us really make the effort to address our place in systemic injustice and to be reflective in our actions and words? How many of us are prepared to fight for these students rather than fight them as representatives of a system that offers more pathways to prison than pay.
I have over 20 years experience in and around education and I have a few thoughts on the arguments made to “lose the booths’.
If you have not followed, the #losethebooths argument quite rightly raises the issue of how we deal with challenging behaviour in schools. How do we foster positive learning environments and ensure that all students achieve? How do we manage disruptive or aggressive students, how can we reach them? How do we keep students on pathways to success rather than to prison or poverty?
I would like to suggest that we are ignoring the root of the problem: that schools are catalysts for inequality and violence. Unless we address systemic injustices which are built into our systems and beliefs and actions, we will continue to see violence and anger.
No child is born angry or violent or disruptive. We create unjust structures, we ignore harm and we are dishonest about equality and justice and what is fair. We fail to address our own complicity in this and then we wonder why young people are unhappy and find any way they can to fight against injustice. Faced the same issues my students cope with, most adults I know would be angry, kick walls, flip tables and shout. We joke about the “table flip” when we get upset as adults but we refuse to acknowledge that young people are right in what they are expressing.
Children are often born into neglect even if they are very privileged- look no further than the damaged souls in the Royal family or celebrity children. Schools are not just education institutions: they are also social work and counselling centres, often the main source of food and clothing.
Layered on top of this unsteady foundation to learning is the pressure placed upon teachers. If I sold ice cream, I could go to my manager at the end of a bad season and justify my bad sales on the rain or cold. Educators work with young people who are more volatile- and I say this not meaning dangerous but more in need of careful handling- than some chemicals! A student can enter the year with everything in the bag and then have a life event such as injury or bereavement that can ruin that potential. Teachers are constantly observed and required to produce data on their students that ignores this very human side of metrics. I hate metrics!
For teachers and students, targets are set and measures taken that affect pay and future achievement. This is not an environment for “love” or “community”. This is an environment where everyone is running on fumes, the tank is empty and frustrations are building. It is like driving a race in a bad car and knowing you need to stop for fuel or change the car entirely or take a different route, but no one will let you and they keep scoring you as you pass by.
Building schools with care or “love” as I see used a lot now, it means acknowledging that we need to change ourselves AND that we are willing to fight back on behalf of our students. They cannot succeed without us. We also cannot demand respect if we are not acting with self respect or respect for them.
Schools change when we all change and when we stand for something. You are born looking like your parents but you die looking like your choices. What are the choices we are making? What does our curriculum say we stand for? What do our rules, our uniform, our choices on food and environment say about what we value?
For a basic change: most schools are simply not neurodiverse friendly. Lighting is harmful ( those long strip beams are TERRIBLE and induce headaches). Schools are sensory overloads and then we make children go to five or six different lessons a day, often on two week timetables. It is like having to tame a different dragon each hour. I challenge any adult to endure a week of back to back meetings, hour long, no talking, uncomfortable chairs. Most of you would be rioting by ten am on a Tuesday.
Now we have that delicious ingredient mix for success, let us season a little more with the structural discrimination our society reinforces via schools. The excellent Guilaine Kinouani has written eloquently on racial inequality in schools and I advise you strongly to read her work and reflect- better still-pay her to come in and do workshops with you.
Pran Patel has also blogged and spoken about decolonising the curriculum. We need to recognise these as urgent issues. Our education system is not offering students a safe and hopeful place to be. It is demanding they sit in uncomfortable overloading rooms, taught by stressed professionals who can’t see a way forward, who have to exclude and remove because how else do you get 30 students through Macbeth or algebra?
If students can see themselves represented and recognised, they are happy-aren’t we all? We MUST work with them to offer them useful and meaningful opportunities to learn. That means making sure our learning material reflects balanced sources. But also by recognising that classrooms themselves, the very fabric of the buildings- are causing unwanted behaviour. When we ask students to learn subjects via a whitewashed heteronormative and classist lens, in rooms where they are overstimulated and uncomfortable, we have a recipe for disaster.
Teachers are stressed and overloaded. I will say the quiet part out loud here: not every teacher is right for teaching and we need to manage those people out. I have taught in schools where certain teachers would refuse to teach certain students. Where arguments and personality clashes and enforcement of ridiculous, unfair process damaged relationships beyond repair.
We have devoted, incredible teachers, but we are losing them. If I walk around the school where I work, I hear the most amazing and inspiring lessons going on. I often wish I could stay to hear more. These teachers are giving so much but within a broken system they often feel powerless to change. Every new government changes it all up and makes OFSTED more powerful. Teachers get more targets, more blame and all while working hard, often giving snacks, supplies and emotional support to students.
We have booths and exclusions because young people are fighting a system that does not work for them. As I previously said: there are so many ways that even uniform or the way they pay for food are reinforcing inequality. We need to honestly talk about this and do so with a balanced range of voices heard.
Linkted to this is the the rise of edtech such as biometrics and data given to various platforms. I see facial recognition or even AI used to monitor student engagement. Is this where we are going? Layering on surveillance instead of addressing the baseline issues. Let us also not forget that student data is being GIVEN to outside agencies to profile our learners. What impact this will have on their future is uncertain and chilling. Instead of solving why students might be out of lessons or late or underachieving, we are feeding their data into apps and platforms. None of this will tell us anything we would not know if we listened.
None of this is new, we just need to listen.
As an example of how things are broken: my children want pets.It is almost comical how if I want to purchase fish for my home, I have to wait a week to bring the fish home, once they are happy I have a tank at the right temperature, water all safe. Yet we can have real live tiny humans, take them home, put them into schools and more and people say “oh they will be fine”. We have a royal society to protect animals in England and yet only a national one to protect children. Maybe that says everything about what we value.
Live, laugh, love: it is fine on your wall at home or pinterest board. But we need more than that in schools. We will not improve behaviour if we do not improve schools and ourselves. It all starts with us. It has to. We have the power, we have to fight for these young people. We cannot blame them for challenging failing systems.