Sec Ed Guest editorial: Right you 'orrible lot

By | 15 September 2011

The focus on discipline in schools sparked by the summer’s riots has been all-to predictable and no doubt has bumped Troops to Teachers, one of the coalition’s flagship policy ideas, up the agenda again.
It’s amazing how often at the Boarding Schools’ Association we receive phone calls from parents close to tears and declaring: “We have to find a boarding school for him (or her) – he (or she) is out of control!”
It is more amazing that even a parent at the end of their tether should think a boarding school is the answer to the problems bundled in the skin of a stroppy and unruly teenager. It usually is a teenager, but once it was a six-year-old. The phone call was long, and felt like emergency counselling for a mum in despair.
We ended up agreeing that spending more time with her child rather than less would be a good idea, and since he loved dinosaurs and museums are free, why not take him to see some gigantic skeletons. I even sent him a book about dinosaurs – it was a week before Christmas.
Most of the calls are more briskly dealt with: British boarding schools are not military schools along the American model of “boot camps”, where children learn discipline the hard way and not necessarily because they want to. And if a child is out of control at home, why on earth would any boarding school want to invest time and energy in reforming him (or her)?
Their primary concern is children’s welfare, and that means all of the children, boarders or day pupils, they already have. Why would any sane headteacher want to admit a liability? And what would the parents of the many say if the head did admit a child who was a danger both to himself and to the others he was joining?
Family situations do arise where a child is better off out of the family home, and so are the parents, and perhaps the “downtime” a boarding school offers by having the child in a safe place for nights and weekends as well as days can allow such a family to heal and go forward more positively.
But such situations are relatively rare, and when they do arise, parents need to be very honest with the receiving school, and ideally able to paint a picture of the child’s potential – a sportsman? An actor? An IT whiz? – to balance any hint of being intrinsically difficult to educate.
I’d be the first to agree that a school environment should be disciplined. I do believe that you need order in the classroom to make progress, to learn. And in the corridors, and in the lunch queue, and I speak as one who was nearly run over by a rampaging rugby team thundering down a corridor on its cheerfully boisterous way to a practice, and who almost came to blows with two boys brawling at my feet and completely oblivious to a mere vocal intervention. Oh yes, we should be able to take it as a given that our children are as safe in school as they would be at home.
But I have to admit that when we start believing only soldiers can run schools, then we might as well all pack up and go home. Would there not be uproar if we declared what the army needs in its various theatres of war is regiments of teachers?
If so, why do we smile and nod and say “but of course!” to the notion that soldiers will make excellent teachers? After all, the army imposes discipline on willing recruits who get court martialled if they step too far out of line. It may not be so easy in 10G on a Friday afternoon with precious few sanctions in the kit bag.
Transferable skills being what they are, no doubt cross-over with appropriate training and sufficient subject knowledge is possible – sergeant majors wielding text books and historians getting to grips with bayonets (if indeed they are still in use) may be the answer to recruitment problems in both worlds. But could we please get rid of the idea that, basically, anyone can teach? 
First published at;type_uid=7.  Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association but writes here in a personal capacity.

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