Scenes from the Battleground – a secondary school teacher reveals the horrors of British classrooms

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I’ve just spent the last few hours reading the Scenes from the Battleground blog. Andrew Old is old-school: a believer in teaching facts and knowledge, in the importance of effective discipline, and he does not believe in progressive education.

He writes well, with zest and humour. Here’s a good example: someone sent him an email asking him to review the trailer of a documentary about education called We are the People We’ve been Waiting For.

After copying the original emailed request into his blog entry, Andrew provides his review:
Why Lord Puttnam Can Stick His Stupid Documentary Up His Arse

Andrew is not going for shock value here, he is genuinely furious:

But it takes the insanity of the zealot to blame educational failure on the academic focus of the education system, when anybody familiar with our schools can see that there is no academic focus for these children. This is a rant against authority in education, by the kind of people who do have authority in education. This is an argument for failed orthodoxy by presenting it as a radical departure. This is a polemic against academic standards by the kind of people who have already lowered the standards to nothing. This is an attack on the curriculum by the people who gave us the curriculum we have. This is an attempt to blame the failure of the educational system on the very values the system has already abandoned. This is a prolonged assault on a strawman education system that not only doesn’t exist, but would be far better than what we have now if it did exist. This is shameful lies combined with self-righteous sermons.

OldAndrew is intelligent and eloquent and knowledgeable (I’ve bookmarked his brief history of British education since WWII), but his blog entries pall after a while: it’s all rather negative – there are no success stories. It may be that success stories are impossible, given the kind of environment he describes (few serious consequences for children who misbehave, for instance, little or no backup from administration, and a steady stream it seems of arrogant, snivelling, rude young people who are never held responsible for their actions), yet I can’t help responding, “If you’re so clever, why can’t you make your approach work?” Maybe it does, but Andrew doesn’t seem interested in telling us the things that work. It’s more fun slagging off the students, or the staff, or the administrators, or the parents (everyone gets some stick at some time or other on his blog, including commenters).

He does a service, I think, to blow the lid off the “phony” approaches, such as Brain Gym and others that might be lumped together under the heading Snake Oil. (Here are similarly critical examinations of Learning Styles. The dominant philosophy of the times is in favour of such approaches, so it comes as a bit of a (healthy) shock to read a contrary opinion.)

A fairly frequent commenter on Andrew’s blog is Newsisgood. Here’s a question posed by Newsisgood to Andrew, with Andrew’s response:

Is it at all possible that a students’ misbehaviour could be down to unfair punishments from the teacher, or unfair discipline from the system?
If it is possible, would you still blame the student anyway? (You have said before that you must presume that the teacher is always correct when a teacher and student disagree). by Newsisgood June 4, 2007 at 10:11 am

“Is it at all possible that a students’ misbehaviour could be down to unfair punishments from the teacher, or unfair discipline from the system?”


Strangely enough a student’s misbehaviour is down to the student. (The clue was in the word “student’s”.)

by oldandrew June 4, 2007 at 10:29 am

Andrew seems a mite intransigent. I don’t think the situation is as black-and-white as he sees it. For a start, he’s dealing with children, who by definition are not fully formed adults. In other words, it seems non-productive to insist that young people take full responsibility for their behaviours and choices as one might expect of adults. A lot of children’s behaviour, particularly in school, is a playing out of child/parent roles, in other words it is often a response to adult behaviour (tho the adult in question may not be in the classroom).

Andrew has repeatedly stated on his blog that he considers the bad students as people who bring their bad behaviours with them to school: he recounts experiences of students being rude and abusive to him or to other teachers whom they did not know. He feels stung by the (apparently) often repeated suggestion that teachers whose students behave badly are responsible, and that the solution lies in a better relationship with the students. Andrew dismisses this out of hand: “there IS no relationship” and yet students behave badly.

I feel Andrew is stuck in his situation. His attitude seems to preclude any satisfactory solution. I haveto admire his fortitude in staying instead of giving up. He sounds more intelligent than most of his fellow-teachers, which must make it increasingly galling when he is called to account by some dippy higher-up.

Update: here is another example of Andrew’s negativity andclosed-mindedness. What would be more helpful, then? “Focus on the negatives! Let the buggers get you down!” perhaps?

I think we all struggle with the attitudes of students and SMT alike. The trick is NOT to let it affect you. Life becomes a lot easier in schools if you can go around with a smile on your face and attempt to focus on the positives…after all, most kids are great.

It seems rather self defeating to allow the misery of a few morons to determine your own mood.

Who are the adults here?

     by treeman December 7, 2007 at 10:43 am


“The trick is NOT to let it affect you. Life becomes a lot easier in schools if you can go around with a smile on your face and attempt to focus on the positives…after all, most kids are great.”

Thanks, I forgot to mention that one.

That’s definitely one of the most unhelpful things you could ever say to somebody working in a stressful environment and only somebody who really didn’t get it could ever say it.

     by oldandrew December 7, 2007 at 2:32 pm

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Comments 2

  1. oldandrew wrote:

    Thanks for the link.

    I thought I’d better respond to a few of your points.

    With regard to the lack of positives, I do sometimes mention good things (e.g. ) and things that work (e.g. ) but on the whole I report what is normal and in the system as it currently it is pretty difficult to make a difference. Stories about my successes would soon become stories about people who tried to stop me, or what I had to do to avoid being stopped. (Similarly, for the successes of other people I know.)

    With regard to my exchange with Newsisgood, I would point out what was being claimed. It was not simply that students behave badly because of institutional factors, but they behave badly because of discipline and punishment. This is the ultimate claim of appeasers: that bad behaviour is caused by enforcing good behaviour and I can see every day that this results in disaster.

    With regard to the more general point about responsibility for behaviour. Firstly, I am talking about secondary education, ages 11-18. This is past the age of criminal responsibility, after 7 years of compulsory education, and in many cultures young people in at least part of this range would be considered to be adults, so we should be very carful about excuses based on the idea that they are too young to behave.

    My claim is not that children are as responsible as adults, but that they are responsible to some degree, and that treating them as if they aren’t is harmful. Moreover, I have gone through most of the common excuses for not holding children responsibe in some detail and explained why they are philosophically confused.

    With regard to the claim of focussing on the negatives, I would suggest that this is how you change things. I am interested in improvement, and the biggest single obstacle to this in most schools is the attitude that it is “negative” to identify what isn’t working. Perhaps “this isn’t good enough” is a negative message, perhaps believing it can be depressing, but it is the only way forward and if you have seen how often change is thwarted by an unwillingness to identify what is wrong or by the claim that “this is all we can expect from kids like these” then you’d probably understand why “this isn’t good enough” remains my message.

    Posted 28 Dec 2009 at 5:23 pm
  2. Steven Berrey wrote:

    “I would suggest that this is how you change things. I am interested in improvement, and the biggest single obstacle to this in most schools is the attitude that it is “negative” to identify what isn’t working.”

    I disagree. I believe it is with teachers as it is with pupils. If you continually focus on the negative and ignore the positive there is no movement forward simply demotivation and decay.

    Posted 11 Jan 2010 at 2:15 am

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  1. From Scenes from the Battleground responds on 29 Dec 2009 at 2:39 am

    [...] of Scenes from the Battleground, took the trouble to comment on my earlier post (his comment is here, myoriginal blog post is [...]

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