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The rise of authoritarian schools

Don't speak. Don't take your eyes off the teacher. Just nod - or else. Britain's schools are starting to feel like dystopian nano-states that cherish performative obedience and quantifiable grades above all else. How come? And why are private schools exempt from the hyper-disciplinarian approach richly meted out to working class kids? 

February 01 2024, 18.19pm
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“Silence is my natural state” was the mantra chanted by students at a United Learning Trust school in 2021, while at an Astrea multi-academy trust (MAT) school, pupils follow the ‘slant’ approach: Sit up, Lean forward, Answer questions, Nod their heads and Track the teacher. At schools at the Athena Learning Trust, children are sent to ‘reflection’ - two and a half hours in a silent hall - for transgressions including touching another child on the shoulder and dropping a pen. In the academic year 2021-22 alone, pupils spent a total of 19,235 hours there. 

Authoritarianism - under the guise of high behavioural standards - has crept steadily into UK schools, with the promise that it will get the best out of children. Chris Fenton’s* son, Tom*, is one such child. He attends a school run by Ted Wragg, a prominent trust the South West, While his son “started off OK, because he was just terrified of doing anything wrong,” says Fenton, “there comes a time when ‘discipline fatigue’ clocks in and a child just doesn't care anymore.” Tom spent an increasing amount of time in ‘reset’ (his school’s version of ‘reflection’) to the extent that in one school year alone, he had lost the equivalent of 55 days of learning. Ted Wragg did not respond to our request for comment. 

“Last year, I stopped counting when it got to 50,” says Fenton, adding that the school’s approach to discipline did nothing to help his son engage with learning, but created a self-fulfilling cycle. In year 7, Tom was predicted to achieve well academically, says Fenton. “He did every piece of homework given to him and applied himself in everything… he is now completely disengaged because they've shown him they don’t want him there, he feels stupid because he’s missed so much work, and he'd rather just be punished.” Tom has no interest in pursuing education after his GCSEs, says Fenton, but the impact extends far beyond that. “He’s lost his sense of purpose, his sense of belonging and his sense of trust in adults.” 

"You are not ‘creating respect’, you’re not teaching children how to work in society, you're saying: ‘You will do well and if you do not you will be punished.'" 

Fenton has been through the school’s complaints procedure multiple times, and while his concerns seem to be taken seriously at first, he says, ultimately they go nowhere. And because it is an academy (a type of school run by an academy trust - a not-for-profit company - which can operate either individually or as part of a MAT) the local authority has no say in how it is run - there is nowhere further he can take his complaints. This lack of democratic control over academies, says Fenton, makes them “a law unto themselves,” and the message to him and his son is clear: “If you don't like it, go elsewhere.” But there is nowhere else to go, he says; most of the schools in his area are run by Ted Wragg, why would their approach be any different?

A power exchange

Robert Nurton*, a teacher of 22 years, also in the South West, left his deputy head role last year after his school became increasingly authoritarian. He now runs a home-educating business, catering to the increasing numbers of Devonshire children who are being removed from school (2,951 children were home-educated in 2022/23, according to the BBC - a record high and an increase of 449 on the previous year) with many of his clients current or former pupils at Athena Learning Trust. 

“I have one boy who left [college] in year 7… he was generally a really well-behaved child, but he was being sent to reflection on a daily basis because of fidgeting or looking in a different direction,” says Nurton, adding that he has all the calling cards of ADHD. “But when I met him for the first time, he had got to the point of self-harming, channelling all his negativity and anxiety into cleaning himself, scrubbing his hands to the point where they would bleed.” It took a year, says Nurton, to bring him out of himself and help him realise that his sense of self-worth should not have been aligned to these authoritarian measures. Measures, says Nurton, “that do not work. You are not ‘creating respect’, you’re not teaching children how to work in society, you're saying: ‘You will do well and if you do not you will be punished,’  [while at the same time] modelling how to treat other people.”

Andy West, a teacher at The Philosophy Foundation (and a contributor to The Lead) agrees that the behavioural policies rely on “isolation, stigma and humiliation, and if you don't learn from that then ‘goodbye’.” And if you do learn from that, he adds, “at what cost? We're going to have another generation of children taught that that’s how you communicate - through power exchange. But children are so powerless … we have a duty as adults not to exploit that.” 

However, he adds, “it is hard to overstate how nostalgic the UK is at the moment.” People find comfort in the past, so when someone like Katherine Birbalsingh puts a modern face on familiar (or ‘small-c conservative’) values, it’s celebrated: Boris Johnson called her “powerful and visionary,” Anthony Seldon listed her as one of the 20 most influential figures in British education, and in 2020 she received a CBE for services to education.

"The results may be impressive, she argues, but the means to get them have become increasingly perverse."

“Our collective bias towards quite an outdated but very familiar model of education [is something] we seem to find it difficult in this country to think beyond,” said Ben Davies, headteacher at St. Ambrose Barlow’s RC High School, during a Rethinking Education podcast. There are many successful ways of providing education to young people, he adds, but “we find it threatening [when they are discussed]…it’s handing over too much control to young people and removing control from adults.”

It’s an ideological approach, but no matter how outdated anyone might find it, it’s one backed up by metrics. And it is this aspect that has been the most successful in drowning out concerns.

Coercion 

“The evidence is clear,” read one column in The Times last year, “strict schools get results.” Michaela, the Wembley pioneer of ultra-disciplined schools and Mercia School in Sheffield topped the progress 8 league table results. Ultra-discipline is seen as the key to academic success at these schools, both of which are situated in areas of high deprivation. They are “transforming lives” of children who would otherwise have bleak outcomes. The end justifies the means.

But, asks Dr Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge University and author of ‘The slide to authoritarianism in English schools’, is it really true that we must treat poorer children as Pavlov’s dogs in order to ‘get the best out of them’?  Or are these harsh disciplinary measures a symptom of the belief that authoritarianism is the most effective way to “inculcate the right attitudes and qualities in working-class pupils.” (One Reddit user was reportedly put off Mercia School after being told, “It’s the only way people like us will get an education like this”). 

While the ultra-disciplinarian approach has taken hold in schools where pupils are primarily working-class and ethnically diverse, says Reay: this is not happening within fee-paying schools. On the contrary, “in the private sector it's considered really important to get children engaged. It doesn’t matter if what they say is wrong, [the priority] is getting them to say it aloud, to participate and to be autonomous learners.” Working-class pupils, on the other hand, are being told “they've got nothing [to say] worth listening to, because no one is listening to them.”

And, given that these disciplinary methods are coupled with a mechanical approach to education, says Reay, who has seen students being prepped for their GCSE syllabus from as young as year 7, can we be sure we’re helping them realise their full potential? They are “bored stiff from being drilled with facts to get A-C at GCSE level,” says Reay, and while “some of them may be brilliant at art and creativity, they’re not getting enough time to develop the skills and competencies because of this narrow focus on an academic, objective standard. It’s just so short-sighted.”

The results may be impressive, she argues, but the means to get them have become increasingly perverse. At Launceston College, for example, pupils were coerced into attending ‘sixth period’ (i.e, an extra hour at the end of each school day) in the months leading up to their GCSEs. If they didn’t, they would not be permitted to attend their leavers’ ball.

A vocation, not a desire to earn money

The amount of (taxpayers’) money being used to pay CEOs of MATs - and how this may be linked to an obsession with exam results - is starting to garner interest too. 

“I did a report last year about high pay [in MATs]  which showed that as the trust gets larger, the chief executive pay gets higher, per pupil,” says Warwick Mansell, founder of Education Uncovered. It is now standard for the leader of a large academy trust to be paid an annual salary of around £200,000, says Mansell, with Schools Week revealing that in 2021-22, the highest paid CEO - who had 51 schools in his trust - received £455,000. 

“So they are getting paid highly,” says Mansell. “And if you're looking for a justification for high pay, then you're probably going to point to [league table] results, possibly Ofsted inspections.” While this theory - that CEOs are preoccupied with league table results in order that they can scale the pay ladder - abounds but has yet to be proven, there is well-founded concern that taxpayers’ money is being funnelled into the highest levels, leaving little for everyone else. 

“I spoke to a teacher from one academy chain who said all the money at their schools seems to be going on senior management," says Reay, "while the children can't even take textbooks home or write in them because they can't afford to buy new books.” 

Fenton agrees that academy schools need to “cut the fluff at the top and invest into staff and training,” adding that going forward he would like to see a “cap on the number of executives that are allowed and on the executive salaries that are spent,” so that the people filling those roles “have a vocation, not a desire to earn money.”

Supporters of the ultra-disciplined approach simplify the narrative (‘you might not like the methods, but they work’) while detractors are often reduced to middle-class lefties with no grip on reality (see how Mouhssin Ismail, founding principal of Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre, responds to concerns about students having to walk in silence, for instance, or the now-deleted tweet from Michael Gosling, CEO of Trinity MAT, to psychologist Dr Naomi Fisher). And while there are some who buy into the disciplinarian approach - there would be no Michaela if not - by actually listening to the many who don’t: the parents who picketed Ilfracombe Academy; the teachers who went on strike over behaviour policies at St Ivo academy; the York constituents who took their concerns about South Bank MAT to Labour MP Rachael Maskell (who took it to parliament) and the teachers who left Longsands Academy en masse last year, then ‘the evidence is clear’: the authoritarian approach refuses to address the varied and complex needs of children, and is yet another symptom of our decimated education system. 

*Names have been changed

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