We don’t need any lessons from Labour!

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We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control, no dark sarcasm in the classroom – teachers leave them kids alone

The Daily Telegraph column today echoes Pink Floyd’s 1979 classic single “Another Brick in the Wall

Labour needs to be taught a lesson

Even if you have no children yourself, you have only to read Lord of the Flies to know the reality. There can be few experiences more terrifying than to stand before a crowd of juveniles and to try to command their respect and their interest; and as soon as you do it, you are lost in admiration for the daily achievement of teachers.


It was only a few months ago that I found myself before a large crowd of 11-year-olds. Perhaps they were especially big six-year-olds. It doesn’t matter. They were on cracking form, to the extent that every word I uttered seemed to make them boil with laughter.

“You’re full of beans!” I said brightly, smacking my fist into my palm. Instantly they convulsed in pant-hoots and horse-whinnies of excitement. “Full of beans!” they said. “He said we were full of beans!”

Was I in control? My friends, I was not; and in that instant I had a Nam flashback, to the time I was briefly a teacher in Australia, and how I tried – for the better part of an hour – to interest a bunch of huge, surly, steak-gorged hormonal 16-year-olds in the work of William Shakespeare.

They stared back at me, open-mouthed, and the longer I churned the air, and the more sweat ran down my brow, the clearer it was that not a single concept had penetrated the vast anti-magnetic force field of their indifference. At the end of it all, as they were filing out, one of them strolled up to me, clapped me on the back and said: “Good try, mate.”

And my problems, of course, are chickenfeed next to the ordeals of teachers at schools up and down the country. It has got worse, far worse, and we are all indebted to Sylvia Thomas, the former teacher who teamed up with Roger Graef to make last night’s documentary, Classroom Chaos.

In case you missed it, we saw that the quotidian experience of the British teacher now involves: classrooms being vandalised in the break, with windows smashed and glass thrown around the room; books destroyed and desks overturned; boys openly using mobiles to download porn, accessing obscene websites on school computers and making sexual suggestions; teachers having to stand guard by the classroom door to prevent their pupils walking out.

As Sylvia Thomas explained: “If I tried to stop him leaving by taking his arm, it would have been his word against mine that I hadn’t abused him, and I would be suspended while the incident was investigated, which could take three years. My name would be in the local press and my reputation as a teacher would be destroyed. The children are very worldly-wise: they know they have this power.”

Her case may be extreme; not every classroom is like that. But far too many are, and we must seek the causes in deep changes in society. It is true that this Government does nothing to help teachers with discipline, and to restore them as figures of respect – a problem that would be eased, as we Tories propose, by giving head teachers far more autonomy in the matter of discipline and exclusion.

But we must also confront the profound revolution that has taken place in the relation between children and adults. Whatever we think the factors are (family breakdown, women going out to work, the malign influence of trash television), we do not, on the whole, seem to provide our children with the kind of discipline we received at the same age; and children do not, on the whole, treat us with the same respect that we gave our own parents.

In some ways it is of course a good thing if children feel less bullied, ground down and tyrannised by adults. But if you take children’s lip, and add in the whole new human-rights-Esther-Rantzen-children’s-commissioner nonsense, then you have a recipe for disaster. We see it in the thuggish incivility on our streets, where cowled, swearing, spitting children can make life hell for everyone, and we see the results in schools.

With indiscipline so rife, it is no wonder that it was recently decided that 16 per cent merited a C grade at GCSE maths, and no wonder that so many 11-year-olds are illiterate. The solutions are not easy, of course. It is no use blaming teachers when they must deal with some very difficult raw material, and when we are all, frankly, far too timid, cowardly and selfish to try to exercise authority ourselves.

But then, nor is it right to blame other parents when they decide to take matters into their own hands and to protect their own children from the baleful influence of the miscreants. It has been one of the great under-reported stories of the past 10 years – mainly because it does not suit the Left-liberal agenda – that a truly astonishing number of state school parents are now using private tutors. About one in four British pupils now receives some additional private tuition, and it is impossible to resist the conclusion that this is because of parental dissatisfaction with what goes on at school. In some cases, the numbers receiving private tuition can be as high as 65 per cent.

What we have, in other words, is a massive and unacknowledged extension of private funding into education – but in a way that is not only exhausting for pupils, but also flagrantly means-tested and discriminatory. It is all right for Tony and Cherie Blair, who displayed their “principles” by using the maintained sector, and yet hired teachers from Westminster School. What about those who could not afford it?

What makes me sick is that it is these very people – the Blairs, Polly Toynbee, Margaret Hodge – who secretly use private education, and yet who scorn Tory suggestions for vouchers that would give millions the choice and opportunity they have themselves. For 30 years, they have promoted a one-size-fits-all model of education, and furtively used another. The consequences have never been more obvious, and it is time they paid a price.

Boris Johnson

23 thoughts on “We don’t need any lessons from Labour!”

  1. Surely you’re not suggesting that discipline is a matter of funding?

    How will funding, or private schools help when it’s simply no longer “attractive” to learn. Those who are sent to private schools are pushed by parents who want them to learn or by their own desire, those who do not want to learn will not become a little angel simply because their parents, or the state, are paying for them to attend school a and not school b.

  2. Boris, I share your sentiments entirely. This government is besotted by targets, despite the overwhelming evidence that they promote dsyfunctional behaviour e.g. 16% pass mark for an exam. This Labour government has engendered a culture whereby everything is handed to children on a plate and this is, in part, evidenced by the seemingly spurious examination results, which improve year after year. As a teacher, I am simply amazed at the significant fall in academic standards which somehow translate into ever-increasing examination success (not to mention the lack of discipline). This is deception on a grand scale, for the sake of government targets. As a teacher, I have to spend inordinate amounts of extra-curricular time helping (or pushing) students towards finishing their work. I never received that sort of help when I did my A-levels. I was expected to work hard for my success, off my own back. Far too many students fail to hand course work in on time and yet I cannot afford to simply let them fail for fear of government targets. Consequently I have to spend additional time chasing them up, because they are too lazy to do the work when they are supposed to – and yet they get away with it time and time again. What does this say about the future of this country ? Furthermore, we also need to revisit this notion of social inclusion, whereby pupils with obvious behavioural problems are put back into mainstream education. It simply does not work. The majority suffers for the sake of the minority. This is not being elitist but rather pragmatic. There is a dire lack of discipline and accountability in our schools. Scrap the targets, enforce discipline without equivocation and let’s use some common sense rather than pandering to hypocritical liberal do-gooders ! It would certainly make the lives of teachers a bit easier rather than continually listening to Blair’s nonsensical rhetoric. Education, education, education … if he is pleased with the current state of behaviour in our schools, then he should be ashamed, because education is being replaced with chaos, chaos, chaos.

  3. Persusive arguments – and nobody likes the hoody boys in the street. But I get awful unsettled when people start saying we need more discipline in schools without being clear exactly what that means. Are we talking about detentions here? Thrashings? Ear pulling? A well-aimed piece of chalk? If you want to revive the old ways, you’re going to have to be clear about what that means.

    And I hope you’ve got some options other than the physical. Because this isn’t really about a lack of discipline in schools – it’s about undisciplined parents at home. If you habitually control your children with physical force, then send them to a school where physical force isn’t an option, you can bet your life they’ll abuse it. The problem isn’t what teachers do or don’t do in the classroom, it’s how we treat children as a society.

    Of course I understand it’s a lot EASIER to suggest bringing back the birch. But remember it used to be legal for a man to beat his wife with a stick. We got over that one. Maybe we can do the same with our kids.

  4. The rot set in with the Plowden report and so called “child centred education”.
    Back in the late 60’s I remember a kid coming to school with a knife, and it caused huge fuss. In the 70s I had a couple of classes in Swansea who were virtually unteachable. They are the parents of todays teenagers. By the 80s I had been driven out of the profession with stress and disillusionment at the behaviour and the lack of any desire to learn anything at all – the parents of todays primary kids.
    I was a school governor in the 90s, and we had terrible problems excluding a single kid, even one that habitually went around biting pupils and swearing at teachers.

    There has never been any support in late 20th century Britain for reasonable discipline and respect for teachers in schools. Even the Tories let the teachers down.

    The answer is to privatise all schools and make parents pay for compulsory education to the age of 15. Yes, you can use vouchers, but until the parents see their own kids wasting their own money, nothing will improve.

  5. There are some interesting thoughts there. The Conservative record on education is, unfortunately, not very good either.

    It’s worth remembering that it was Kenneth Baker who saddled teachers with the National Curriculum. If they have become burdened with paperwork – and with adminstering “targets” – then it is the fault of the National curriculum and its author Kenneth Baker. Excessive paperwork needs no comment. But it is important also to remember that targets – like the police and NHS ones – don’t always measure anything useful and can anyway be subverted by those who look upon them as an end and not a means. (Compare the ambulances queueing outside hospitals delaying patients entry at risk to life so that the in-time is quicker for the records with teachers who coach children on STATs they are not supposed to look at in advance.)

    And anyone who has become obsessed with tests and measurement in all areas of life, as the Conservatives were then and New Labour are now, should read this and think on it:

    http://www.asktog.com/travel/Japan/japan09.html

    The egregious Kenneth Clark made a fool of himself at education, too – as he did everywhere. Many of my friends and relations are in primary, secondary, and tertiary education, and they remember his tenure and loathe him. They’ll never forget this lazy, overfed, ignorant, and oafish man’s gratuitous attack on the teaching profession. Clark, incidentally, is one of the worst parliamentary offenders for outside interests – fake “directorships” and the like. And the man abused hard-working teachers to cover his own failings and lack of knowledge. Sheesh! as the Americans say.

    Anyway, since I mention Clark, I can’t forbear to add that I see he has become pompous over Mr Howard’s calling Tony Blair what he is. I suppose Clark thinks that makes him sound “statesmanlike”. What a joke!

    So here goes. 🙂

    I see in the Telegraph today that Tony Bliar (whoops, Blair) has said: “I never lie.”

    Hmm … what would a statement like that belong with?

    Genghis Khan: I never kill people
    Bill Gates: Our software is secure
    The Beckhams: We don’t like publicity
    Kimberley Quinn: I don’t sleep around
    Gollum: Wouldn’t hurt nice hobbitses
    Boris Johnson: I’m well-groomed
    Julian Clary: I don’t like to dress up

  6. I cant help but object to my feeling that you’re “fiddling the numbers” so to speak. As much as I adore you, I must argue (having recently taken the exam) that while “16 per cent merited a C grade at GCSE maths”, I think you’ll find that more than (much more probably) 70% achieved a grade C OR ABOVE! Sadly GCSE maths grade C is available to anyone who can use their fingers to count, and still some can’t get even that! I entirely agree with you on the problem of classroom behavoir though, there needs to be an effective, IMMEDIATE way for teachers to deal with disruptive pupils, if we are to expect any sort of decent education. Lets hope the Tories get in power.

  7. Barry

    aw – funding? I would say that discipline is a matter of attitude.

    I have found that good schooling can make an immense difference and that teachers go where they feel motivated and rewarded sufficiently -the best schools pay over the odds for the best teachers. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the best teachers teach where they may get the best rewards and the pupils benefit from teachers who believe their charges are the recipients of their supreme knowledge and instruction. Back to the Darwinian survivial of the fittest…in micro and macro schooling terms

    I once had a teacher who asked me what I was doing after A levels – “go to University”, was my answer. He sneered. Guess what – I went to his own 5* university and got the major end of degree prize to boot!

    let’s motivate others to maximise their potential – life is too short!

  8. It’s about time English were taught in schools to a much higher standard than it is now. You spoke about trying to teach Shakespeare; I had Shakespeare and other literature forced on me (I passed through comprehensive school under this Labour government) to such a degree that it was five years before I even picked up a book again! I cannot recall having one grammar lesson throughout my entire senior education – the only grammar lessons I had were in primary school (under the Conservatives), and I remember them well! It’s time to give grammar an equal portion of English lessons, before all of our children become completely illiterate and incapable of uttering more than mere grunts! Please excuse any grammatical errors, as I was ‘taught’ under Labour!

  9. Everyone seems to be forgetting one major factor to this equation. We need to be looking closer at the content of the curriculum, and how it is taught. It’s all very well for us to criticise the ‘trashy television’ (and I couldn’t agree more about what’s on TV these days), but we need to accept it and work around it, not merely complain that it is the problem. What is taught – and, indeed, the way it is taught – just does not interest or motivate the youth of today. This is a much bigger issue and must be addressed before even thinking about anything else.

    Also along a similar vein, unless they’re willing to sit and read something like Lord of the Rings (highly unlikely), there is rarely any fiction on the library shelves that will interest male teens. Perhaps Boris could write something a little shorter…? 😉

  10. When Labour first took office, thrice “EDUCATION” was the cry
    Illiteracy is now much worse: is there a Party reason why?
    There’s neither rhyme nor reason that this should be the case,
    There’s no excuse for these illiterates; it’s a national disgrace.
    A squeaking wheel’s not always greased, it’s easy to get changed
    Depends on what one really wants; but this can be arranged.
    Pupil power has flourished; teacher’s power is on the wane
    There wasn’t this inequality, when the head might use the cane.
    Give schools back to the teachers, allow them eke to teach
    If they tend towards a breakdown; who’ll be there to fill the breach?
    Discipline! Different connotation now: it doesn’t means compliance
    It means another subject, such as languages or science.
    Rights without responsibility: that’s what these kids bring to school
    Now hoods and baggy trousers are accepted: they’re seen as cool
    One presumes these thugs have parents: don’t they care; is this a bore?
    They’re just a few: but still too many: meanwhile: – education’s on the floor

  11. I often read what you have written and so it was today that I logged on to the Telegraph website to see what you had to say about education. And as ever, against my better judgement (for you are a member of the Conservative party) I agree. Totally. I think that the situation in schools is intolerable and I thank my parents every day that they strove and worked to send my brother and I to the best public school that our brains and their pockets would allow.

    I am not old – 30 this year in fact – and yet I do know that I am not part of today’s youth. In fact I am terrified of them. The hooded thugs that ‘hang around’ seem to have no respect for anyone. I have never been of the opinion that birching is the answer, but I do believe that both the Conservative government that I grew up knowing and the current Labour government (to a greater extent) have both tried to create a system where everyone has access to everything and in doing so have simply undermined the ability of the teachers that we have to cope. It seems unacceptable to anyone now to leave school and drive a bus – they have been told time and again that they should have access to universities and higher education. However those that are not clever enough to go on to higher education (or even achieve GCSEs or A-Levels) do exist. So what do they do? Well they seem to have decided that if they cannot feel satisfied with their lot then they will deprive others of happiness through fear and intimidation. In truth the state of the education system is of very little consequence to me – I benefited from my parents toil and subsequently have a good enough job that when the time comes I will not hesitate to send my children to public school. But then maybe I would not choose to pay because I think the teachers would be better… just that the parents would be better.

  12. Aaron, I must object to the statement that what is teached today cannot interest or motivate today

  13. Got to take issue with something there. Teaching shouldn’t be ‘things that are interesting’ or ‘things you need to know’ – teaching should be ‘making new things interesting’. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Dante or Eminem: a good teacher gives you a soupcon of passion for something that you carry in your head for the rest of your life. Not just to the end of the next exam.

  14. Boris describes the situation well enough, but we need to consider as separate issues, (a) the lack of respect for, and interest in, education (a long term problem in England), (b) the failure of education to keep up with economic and technological change (i.e. the failure to modernize), (c) the failure of successive governments to reform the structure of examinations, and (d) the breakdown of discipline.

    Indiscipline is perhaps more of a symptom – indicating that children have lost confidence in the system – than a disease. Stricter management may suppress it but the underlying would problems remain.

    I’d speculate that many kids emerge from their schools years angrily aware that they have neither had a proper traditional education, nor have they acquired the kind of modern communication and technical skills to function successfully in the modern world.

    Incidentally I’ve been trying to find out how many kids in Britain aged 16 and over have their own computers. Can anybody point me to some figures?

  15. Looking at Shakespear’s As you like it, and Jaques’ “The Seven Ages of Man” speech, it is clear that not much has changed since Bard penned that much quoted piece of wisdom. There was the schoolboy who went, “Creeping like snail unwillingly to school”, for example. It rings a bell in 2005 by all accounts( see truancy fidures.). One of your contributors said that teaching is the art of wakening interest in subject seen previously as “stick dry,” or words to that effect .I could not agree more, or as has been said by Boris, ” I could not disagree less.” Get the average child interested in a subject, and the seed is sown for life, even if different plants mature at different speeds. Respect, in both directions, is generally earned at an early stage, it cannot be demanded, if it is to be a genuine feeling. The averagely intelligent child is, by nature, curious about its surroundings, and if there is encouragement, the child is thirsty for knowledge, if served in the right cup, by a person of trust and mutual respect
    At the risk of ridicule, if one were to look at the Stats .for pre WWII basic educational standards, there was Ca. 96% literacy at primary and secondary school levels. I doubt, if published figures are to be believed, that this figure will be equalled today. Progress indeed! Schoolteachers had a standing in society, as befits the mentors of our future administrators, managers and work force, as well as the armed services. There was an almost universal respect for the profession. Not today though, it seems that the only interest the Education Authority has in the educator, is the success they achieve in what seems to be randomly set, and apparently useless, targets. Lower the pass mark, get better results and then crow that the pass quota is filled. Bulldust. It is a fact that successive governments, since the enactment of the1944 Education Bill, have not taken into account, see the demise of the grammar school.
    As different ships have different cap tallies, so, different children have different abilities. Despite the liberal cry, “Everyone is equal”, it is a fact of life that there are some more academically able than others, as are some more dextrously able than others. It is time that these basic biological and psychological facts were faced, and a proper streaming of those different talents and leanings introduced. There is, I know, some half hearted effort toward that direction being tried in some places, but it is patently not enough. This “One Size Fits All” experiment has, I contend , failed: let us tailor the cloth according to the requirement of the child , and perhaps there will be a return of a fruitful Teacher / Student relationship for all.

  16. Vanessa, what I meant was the ‘need to know’ things need to be taught differently, so that they are interesting and do motivate students.

    Basically what Mark Gamon said in his comment. Although, I’d argue that the knowledge barely lasts 5 minutes beyond the lesson, let alone to the exam.

  17. The reason why so many children are so ignorant
    and bad-mannered is because so few are in a
    two-parent family; therefore they receive far less
    attention than they require.
    Secondly, both Labour and the Conservative Party
    have encouraged parents to work, so there is no
    one to control the children for much of the time.
    Thirdly, parts of Society, i.e., schools, are now,
    increasingly, taking on the role of parents, e.g.,
    providing all meals for the child, and almost
    everything else bar his/hersleeping accommodation
    – and yet schools obviously cannot be a viable
    substitute for the parent.
    This is part of the reason for why so many
    children are NEETS and are caught up in ASBOs.
    In sum, if parents thought less about getting the
    latest car, having umpteen foreign holidays, and
    buying the latest (and whiolly unnecessary)
    gadgetry, e.g., mobile phones, for their
    offspring, etc., etc., and spent more time with
    their children, and took an active interest in
    what they do, then perhaps the problems which
    beset us would be far less in number and severity.

  18. They can smell fear.

    These are the types of teenagers that don’t have sufficient sense to realise that it’s in their own interest to turn up for their education.

  19. Well the Daily Telegraph using Pink Floyd as a metaphor. I always thought they’d find Pink Floyd a little to..er..low brow.

  20. “There can be few experiences more terrifying than to stand before a crowd of juveniles ”

    You have lived a sheltered life ;-p

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