Linda J. Graham


On the purpose of assessment

What is the purpose of assessment and what relation does or should it have to the purpose of education?  

Ranking pic

These are the questions that I find myself asking a lot lately in relation to the significant changes scheduled for senior secondary students in Queensland schools come 2019.

As a researcher in the field of inclusive education, I believe one of the forward challenges for Queensland educators is to prevent one purpose of senior school assessment (enabling selection for tertiary entry) from undermining a more fundamental purpose: determining what a student has learnt and can do.

Including students with disability

Students differ in their abilities to learn and to demonstrate their learning. While this is particularly the case for students who experience disability or learning difficulties, it does not mean that these students cannot learn, that they cannot achieve at high levels, or that they cannot pursue academic pathways, including university.

That said, students who experience disability and learning difficulties often perform poorly in assessment and are underrepresented at university. There are many reasons for this but one is because the selection purpose of senior school assessment can dominate, at the expense of understanding what a student has learnt and can do.

This, incidentally, is why questions about the purpose of assessment cannot be considered without also questioning the purpose of education. For example:

Is the purpose of education to educate as many of our young people to the best of their ability so that they can have meaningful lives and contribute to the collective wellbeing of the society in which they live?


Is the purpose of education to apportion the benefits of that society to the fittest, fastest and most powerful (many of whom began the race with a head-start by virtue of their gender, skin colour, and family background)?

Call me idealistic but I still believe that the first is the consensus position among educators, even though the second may be the lived experience of many students with disability.

The dominance of the selection purpose is due to the scarcity of opportunities (e.g., university places) and universities’ need to determine aptitude. Together, these factors necessitate selection, which is enacted through senior school assessment.

The Senior School Race

School students in Queensland now spend 13 years of their young lives in formal schooling with those years culminating in a pressure-filled sprint across an academic obstacle course called Years 11 and 12.

Competition is fierce because the stakes are high. Future fulfillment and living standards are on the line. Senior school assessment determines which young people get what and fairness is paramount. Isn’t it?

The selection purpose of senior school assessment is informed by the concept of “merit”, which is itself informed by meritocratic beliefs; e.g., that achievement is the product of ability + hard work and success/selection is therefore merited.

Uncritical acceptance of this concept, however, requires one to also accept the corollary, which is that failure to achieve is the result of inability and a lack of hard work and, as such, non-selection is also merited.

Meritocratic thinking has been challenged by sociologists of education for decades, because it helps naturalise structural inequalities both in the provision of education and its outcomes. Teese’s Academic Success and Social Power is a brilliant example of scholarship in this important area…

Equity as fairness

The provision of inaccessible curriculum, pedagogy and/or assessment contributes to structural inequalities because each affects disabled students’ ability to learn and/or to effectively demonstrate their learning.

Making adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment is a way of equalising opportunity through design. It is a way of achieving more equitable outcomes.

Over time, however, the belief that outcomes are always the result of individual merit — together with the necessity and nature of selection — has impacted educators’ perceptions of equity.

As a result, equity is sometimes misinterpreted as “everyone getting an equal chance” to be selected, but – in the context of competitive selection – the term “equal” comes to mean that everyone must be judged using the same measure; e.g., that all students must sit the same test in the same way.

This is a fundamental misreading of the concept of equity, which is about fairness. Fairness is not about everyone getting or doing “the same”, it is about each getting what they need to address the various disadvantages faced by different groups.

There is an entire field of philosophy devoted to scholarship in this area and determining “fairness” is not as simple as it sounds. One question raises another question, which then prompts more questions (as is so often the case in philosophy). That said, there is general consensus that society has a responsibility to act in the interests of the least well-favoured.

This is why we have income redistribution in the form of taxes, why we have pensions, why we have public hospitals and public education, and why we will soon have a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

It is also why we have legislation to prevent direct and indirect discrimination against people with disability, including students in schools regardless of sector.

In Australia, that legislation is the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and it is underpinned by the concept of equity, which goes all the way back to Aristotle who is quoted as saying “treat equals equally and unequals unequally”.

The DDA makes it against the law to discriminate against a person because they have a disability and requires educational providers to offer students with disability the same educational opportunities as everyone else through changes known as “reasonable adjustments”.

In other words, the DDA requires educators to treat students unequally.

The associated Disability Standards for Education (DSE), first released in 2005, outline obligations for educators, one of which is to:

  • Make reasonable adjustments to assist a student with disability to participate in education and training on the same basis as other students.
Addressing barriers

The purpose of educational adjustment is to address barriers to access and participation of students with disability. Preferably this is done proactively using universal design principles.

The aim is to “level the playing field” by reducing barriers that lead to direct or indirect discrimination and by providing supports to ensure that students with disability can take full advantage of the opportunities available to them.

The challenge, as Joy Cummings puts it, is “how to reconcile the mandatory aspects of performance with the principles of alternative ways to demonstrate knowledge and understanding“.

Or, in other words, given the various competing purposes of assessment, how do we identify and remove barriers that disadvantage one group without then advantaging that group or disadvantaging another?

This is hard intellectual work. But it is made easier by going back to that fundamental question: what is the purpose of assessment? 

If we keep the purpose of assessment firmly focused on determining what a student knows and can do, rather than allowing the ranking and selection purpose to dominate, options to address barriers to access and participation become clearer.

It is not about making assessment “easier” in academic terms. It is about making it fairer so that students with a disability are not prevented from demonstrating what they know and can do.

If we don’t do this, barriers to access and participation will continue to determine the future fulfillment and living standards of students with a disability.

And that’s not very fair, is it?






Breaking all the rules…

A set of draconian school rules drafted by a former deputy head teacher of “England’s strictest school” has (most of) Twitter aghast this week.

In a bid to out-do his old school, Principal Barry Smith, has apparently told students they can’t ask to leave class if they feel sick, offering them what we Aussies call a “chuck bucket” instead.

chuck bucket

What made me feel sick – quite frankly – was the way in which parents were disrespected. Talked down to like they were the modern embodiment of Orwell’s ‘proles’.

At the base of that attitude is a whole lot of assumptions based on what the Brits call ‘social class’ and what we Australians euphemistically refer to as ‘disadvantage’.

Common to both are fewer qualifications, lower incomes and sometimes a different – not necessarily lesser – set of values.

But poverty doesn’t necessarily make for shit parenting, kids who act out at school aren’t necessarily poor, and defiance or disruption at school isn’t always the result of lax parenting.

I know I’m going up against a ubiquitous explanatory discourse here, so let me explain what I mean.

1. Being poor doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids or want the best for them

I feel obliged to stick up for the parents of these kids because I’ve listened to them recount their battles with the education system and dare to breathe the fears they have their child.

I can barely breathe myself when people write about such parents as though they are too feckless to care about their children’s future or even that they are deliberately sabotaging it.

My most memorable parent interview was with a mum of 60 and I was there to discuss her fifth and youngest child. I felt ashamed when listening to her story, even though I had played no part in it.

It took two minutes for her to break down into tears and I was about 10 seconds behind. She recounted her repeated pleas for help for her 16-year-old son since he had started school. A boy who had trouble reading and writing and keeping up but who never received any help: just disciplinary action. Detentions and incident reports and suspensions.

This wasn’t what got me crying because I’ve heard it all before. No, it was the hurt in her voice and the fact that she felt she had to explain herself to me. To tell me that she wasn’t actually a deadbeat, that yes – she did live in a housing commission home supported by the taxpayer, but that she worked full-time as a carer for people with spinal injuries. At the age of 60. She was also proud that she paid rent despite earning a pittance and had never been evicted.

She was also very involved in her community and was working hard with other parents to regenerate an outer-ring Sydney suburb that the government filled with disadvantaged people and then promptly forgot.

Another thing she was at pains to tell me was that she’d been married twice and that her first husband had died and the second had beaten her up. It was clear that she knew the assumptions people make about single mums with multiple kids and it pained me that this woman who was the same age as my own (twice-married) mother felt the need to justify herself and her life to me.

That only happens when one has felt scorn and judgment. And she was very clear that she believed that this is why her pleas for help for her son went unheard.

I already knew much of this because the principal of the behaviour school (Sydney’s version of a PRU) had already told me how wonderful she was and how “fucked over” she and her son had been.

In his view, she was a great parent. Yes, she was poor but the environment in which she and her son lived – a housing commission estate that was a looong way from anywhere, with crap infrastructure, and lots of people with mental health issues and drug problems who were somehow supposed to “make their way” – had been a far more powerful influence than she.

I don’t hear much about this from the self-appointed saviours who wrote those anally-retentive school rules. They’d probably call her a whinger. Coz she’s definitely not a winner.


2.  School rule-breakers can come from advantaged backgrounds

I grew up in a suburb of Dublin called Foxrock. Irish readers will know it well. Think Knightsbridge in London or Double Bay in Sydney. Ascot in Brisbane.

My brother, sister and I all went to private schools. Himself was expelled from three schools, my sister left school at the end of Year 9 when we emigrated, and I exited an Australian government comprehensive in an ignominious blaze of glory mid-Year 10.

We found plenty of wayward friends in our elite schools and posh suburbs: Kids with lots of pocket money. Kids with absent parents. Kids with trust funds. Kids with unoccupied holiday homes. Kids with too-trusting/non-communicating divorced parents.

Anyone who thinks bad stuff only happens in low SES schools obviously doesn’t get out much.

My brother, sister and I pushed and continue to push the boundaries in our own ways but we certainly didn’t get it from our parents. To say they were dismayed and embarrassed is an understatement.

The point I’m making is that sometimes parents can throw everything they have (high expectations, flying lessons, horses, grounding, emigrating – yes, emigrating) at the problem child/ren, yet some kids still have to do things their way. Even if that is the hard way.

Amusingly, I have a 15-year-old son who is reminding me of this daily and the “arghh!” conversations I have with my dad are epic. He is enjoying grandfathering much more than parenting.

Schools need to back parents just as much as parents need to back schools. I don’t see any recognition of that in Barry’s rules. Which means one side is still letting the other down.

3.  School misbehaviour doesn’t mean they’ve never been told no

In my behaviour school research I was very interested in kids’ responses to the question “So, what do mum and/or dad say when you get in trouble at school?” I asked this because there is a common assumption that the answer is nothing because parents of kids who misbehave at school don’t care.


While some boys did say “nah, nothin, they don’t care”, the majority said things like “she gets upset” or “they take away my Xbox”.

We shouldn’t assume that parents do nothing just because their child happens to be impervious. It’s also passing the buck to the extreme to blame parents for what happens within school: they can’t influence what happens there as much as they might want to.

One last thing to think about is this: when children come from violent and authoritarian family environments, school authority can be a secondary consideration. Children who have experienced physical aggression and intimidation from family members can be hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive to perceived aggression: from peers and other authority figures alike.*

One might think that a child from this type of background would not want to break school rules to avoid getting in trouble at home but sometimes the imposition of authority by a teacher can feel illegitimate to a child ruled by fear of their parent/s.

Again, I see none of this deeper thinking at work in the rules of schools like Great Yarmouth. Rather, what I see is a manifesto designed to make sure that kids like this do not enrol or if they do that they blow a gasket and tell someone to get ‘effed.

That’s what I would have done.  Shortly after describing in intimate detail what they could do with their chuck bucket.


* If you would like to learn more, Dr Judith Howard from QUT is hosting a conference on Trauma Informed Schooling next month:










How ’bout we get rid of the mainstream?

Part I.

The first time I started reading about Autism Spectrum Disorder was when my daughter was 18 months old.

I was trying to find answers as to why my child would only eat white foods, why she never recognised when she was hungry or thirsty, why she did not seem to notice pain when excited, why she did not like to be hugged (even by her mum or dad), why she was terrified by loud noises but attracted to the washing machine, why she was “set off” for days if we had visitors (especially if those visitors wore perfume), why she spoke in oddly organised and memorised “chunks”, and why I was slowly turning into a prisoner in my own home.

When she was two, I made the decision to go back to university, partly because I sensed it would be good for both of us. She began daycare one day a week and I felt like I was missing a limb every time I left her.

It was a bloody struggle every single week. The sandpit gave her excema, she was sick every other day, and every drop-off and pick-up was greeted by a massive melt-down. After about 6 months, we moved her up to two days for continuity’s sake.

One interesting thing about my very pale daughter [who for this post will be known only as Sweetpea] is that she used to cry with such ferocity that she would burst the tiny capillaries in her skin. These blotches would only last a few hours, but you could measure the force of a melt-down by how far they spread.

Just on her face: 1-3 grade meltdown.

Spreading down her neck: 4-6 grade meltdown.

Across torso and arms: 7-10 meltdown. 

I began noticing that she had 7-10 grade blotches when I picked her up, well before she’d had a chance to reproduce them on the way out the gate. Some careful probing revealed that the centre carers had been tying her to a chair to force her to sit at the “lunch” table, while the other children ate.

Why? Because that’s what she should do.

I took our daughter home and never went back. As soon as a place became available, I enrolled her at Mia-Mia Child and Family Study Centre at Macquarie University. She was almost three by this stage.


The transition was long and heart-breaking. I spent hours sitting outside the centre watching her from afar, tears streaming. She would speak to adults but never to children. In fact, she made sure that there was an adult between her and other children at all times. A little shadow who moved herself around this glorious centre like a lone chess piece.

Enter the first teacher who helped us shape our daughter’s future.

The lovely Jenny Eaton noticed that Sweetpea only ever engaged in parallel play and no spontaneous imaginative play, unless it was directed by an adult. Carefully, Jenny began setting up play sequences to involve Sweetpea and teamed her up with two other little girls.

I say ‘little’ girls, but they seemed so much older than my mite, with sophisticated language, inquiring eyes and a radar that told them she was somehow different. I’d like to say it all went well but triangles seldom do.

Nonetheless, Sweetpea’s fear of other children did wane a little and she joined in activities more, thanks to Jenny who would intervene when or before it all went pear-shaped. Wherever you are now, Jenny, thank you! xxx

At five, Sweetpea started school in Queensland and seemed to be coping well with everything but the weather. You see, it can be kind of dangerous to not recognise thirst in the thumping heat of February and when schools are not air-conditioned.

My request that her teacher please make sure that she drink some water before attacking the monkey-bars* resulted in the first “she’ll need to be ascertained” (this is Queensland-speak for “we need funding to do anything different”).

Despite getting called to the school whenever she passed out from dehydration, we didn’t bother with ascertainment until she was almost eight. This was because (a) I knew that she was unlikely to receive much, and (b) I refused to go through the rigmarole for something that freakin’ simple.


Part II.

I’m reliving all this today (and more) because there’s a lot of hand-wringing at the moment about funding for students with disability with the claim that inclusive education doesn’t work because it isn’t funded properly.

There may be some truth to this, but I know from my research over the last 13 years that the existing funding isn’t always used well. And it is also true that many students with disability can be successfully included without ANY additional (individually targeted) funding.

In truth, there is a lot that disturbs me about the current debate. The hyperbole in pieces like this article from the Daily Telegraph makes my skin crawl, but so too does the framing of the problem.

In a nutshell, the claim in this article is that there is a critical shortage of places in support classes and special schools in NSW with many more students than places available.

In the past, this has been cast as the fault of inclusion (or integration as they STILL call it in NSW) but this is completely false and my research with colleagues at Macquarie University illustrated this over six years ago.

We found that the proportion of enrolments in segregated settings in the NSW government school sector has been increasing since the 1990s. We also found a proportional decline in enrolments in regular classes.

In other words, the “mainstream” is shrinking…

A quick check this afternoon was enough to confirm that the trend to exclude is still strong in Australia’s largest school system.

In 2007, 2.28% of students (16, 846) attending NSW government schools were enrolled in support classes and special schools. By 2015, that proportion had increased by almost one third to 2.90% (22,408 students).

What that means is a growing proportion of students with disability are being educated in special schools and classes. Those speaking to the Daily Telegraph would have us increase this further.

As always, the language is revealing. For example, as one principal stated:

“While students with disabilities should be welcomed in the mainstream setting, there are some cases where a specialist setting would be far more appropriate. Parental choice should not be the final determining factor, as a mainstream setting cannot offer.”

I have two questions in response to this.

  1. If the proportion of students in segregated settings has been increasing for (at least) the last 25 years and the mainstream itself is shrinking, shouldn’t these principals be asking what might be wrong with the mainstream and what it would take for local schools to be able to do things differently??
  2. Given that principals are responsible for leading their schools, investing in their teachers, and supporting their students in accordance with the DDA and Disability Standards, then isn’t Point 1 what they should be lobbying for?

Part III.

Sweetpea made it through school, and has come so far that I find it hard to believe when I look at her now that she’s the same person as the little chess piece I used to watch. Frankly, I see a “before” Sweetpea and an “after” Sweetpea, but I couldn’t tell you when before ended or after began.

It wasn’t easy and there is much that could and should change in regards to schooling, but that can only happen if everyone in this space thinks beyond the status quo.

What I do know is that Sweetpea wouldn’t be where she is today if we’d wrapped her in cotton wool or if she’d been shunted into a special class. She has worked hard, used her many strengths to compensate and sought help from supportive friends, and I’m bloody glad she had that opportunity.

Because she’s now in her first year of uni and guess what?

She is NAILING it.

Unlike many of her peers, she goes to every lecture and every tutorial. She studies her heart out to keep up and she is getting distinctions. At uni. Something we were once told would never be possible.

And, whilst Sweetpea can’t figure out her timetable for love nor money, that’s the only support from disability services that we’ve ever asked for.

She asks for a lot of clarification from her lecturers and tutors, but not once has anyone at her uni ever told us that we need to get funding for her before they will do things differently.

And, from my vantage point, that’s a big part of the problem in schools.


* Note that the P/1 class had 10 mins to eat before being released by the teacher.

** Thank you Griffith University and QCA. You rock.




On misdiagnosis…

Twitter was writhing again this week in response to Tom Bennett’s latest TES piece in which he linked the recent fidget-spinner craze to “crypto-pathologies” in education. The two examples offered were Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia.*

It’s an interesting piece because – like many pieces by teacher-blogger/edu-celebrities – there is a vein of truth in what Tom says and I have sympathy for what I think is his main argument. But, his overall treatment of a really serious issue is ham-fisted and I fear it will do more damage than good.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve felt concern that research about over- and mis-diagnosis is in danger of being misinterpreted. I also received a request to blog on this issue from a concerned mum, so here goes!

spinner gif

Diagnosis and ADHD

I’ve spent much of my life in close orbit to ADHD and have always been scrupulously careful to stay away from the myth or reality debate. My research focus has always been the function the diagnosis serves and the implications it has for the education of kids who fit the diagnostic criteria.

There is legitimate concern in education research that ADHD will be held responsible for any and all issues a child experiences at school, perhaps detracting attention from the quality of education that child is receiving.

By the same token, quality teaching – in the form of clear and explicit instruction, with liberal doses of structure, routine and repetition – can help children with ADHD focus and retain what they learn. On this, Bennett is right.

However, rates of ADHD diagnosis have levelled off in many Western countries and it is no longer the “blink twice and there’s another kid diagnosed” disorder that it once was. The UK has always had lower rates of diagnosis and medication than the United States, Australia and Canada, so it does feel a little like ADHD is being used as a strawman in this case. That’s not very helpful to the kids and families involved.

The other thing that has interested me in this latest UK debate has been the framing of parents. In the various articles I’ve read, parents are being positioned as too stupid to be able to see through sham diagnoses and/or sham products, or looking for medical excuses for why their child can’t or won’t behave/learn rather than looking at their own parenting.

That’s just parent-bashing, to be frank. There is a very broad spectrum of parents out there with some who refuse to acknowledge their child is having any difficulties and others who see everything through the prism of the DSM.

Most are in the middle ground and most just want to find answers so that they can help their child make it through 13 years of school, so that they can get a decent job and live a happy life.

Yes, some will cop a bum steer [sorry for that Australianism… it’s Mother’s Day here and I’m too full of Yum Cha (thanks kids!) to think of an English alternative] and may latch on to fidget-spinners or wobble chairs or fish oil or brain training in the hope that it will help, but they don’t deserve derision for the effort.

None of these things are going to “cure” ADHD and I’ve yet to meet a parent who truly believes that. Teachers and parents are right to be cautious about the claims of these or any other gadgets sold on a promise.

Speaking of which, an excellent book to help parents and teachers navigate this minefield is Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow’s Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders.



The one caution that I would add is that research always lags reality by several years and only certain types of research get funded. Pharmaceutical research is where the big bucks can be found, so it’s not surprising that the majority of research relating to ADHD is pharmacological.

The point to note here is that medication doesn’t cure ADHD either and the side-effects can be significant enough to persuade many parents to try other options.  At the end of the day it is the parent’s prerogative and whether they diagnose or not, medicate or not, or buy their kid a fidget-spinner and dose them in krill oil, is no one else’s business.

Happily, teaching and learning IS teachers’ business and, whilst a diagnosis can guide teachers’ sense-making, as Jules Daulby put it in her excellent blog post on this topic, at the end of the day:

It doesn’t matter if the child has ADHD or not… recognising behaviour traits and responding is the same, label or no label.

This is just one reason that I have recommended education systems move away from categorical SEN funding models.

A diagnosis is only ever a starting point and children with the same diagnosis can have very different support needs. Similarly, some children with different diagnoses (e.g., ADHD and Developmental Language Disorder) can have very similar support needs.

What matters at the end of the day is the interpretation of the presenting behaviour and the adjustment required. Get those two things right and everyone wins. 

This is what I fear will be missed if teachers are influenced by well-meaning but naive interjections that associate very real problems like ADHD with the term “crypto-pathologies”.

These children don’t receive enough support as it is. A more positive contribution would be to address the reasons they don’t because that is what will make a difference to educational outcomes.

Anything else is just noise.


* I will restrict my comments to ADHD because that’s my area of research. For experts in dyslexia, visit the pages of Macquarie University’s Centre for Human Cognition and its Disorders. They have published a statement on what they mean when they use the term.

Bowen and Snow (2017) also cover the dyslexia terminology debate in their book, Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders, see p. 231 (excerpt below).



Will whole school behaviour policies & corridor etiquette lessons fix classroom disruption?

A report on school behaviour citing very little peer-reviewed research evidence was this week released in England; you know, that place from which Australian governments regularly import education policy ideas despite researchers having already identified their perverse effects?  Yeah, that one.

The bibliography makes for interesting reading. In fact, I found it to be the most illuminating section.

Neo-traditionalist faves, like Doug Lemov’s “Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college” feature large. But recent and highly relevant peer-reviewed studies like this one by Andrew Jenkins and Akiko Ueno, which was published last November in the British Educational Research Journal (the British equivalent to AER), do not.

This is disappointing, given that their study (which used TALIS and PISA data to examine classroom disciplinary climate in English secondary schools) found “only a small proportion – less than a fifth – of the overall variation in classroom climate occurred at the school level” and that “most of the variation was within schools rather than between schools”.

In fact, school level factors (such as clear behaviour policies and their consistent application by school leadership) were only weakly related to classroom climate.  Of more salience were classroom level factors: specifically, classroom composition and teacher characteristics.

Classroom composition

Jenkins and Ueno’s analysis indicates that the higher the proportion of academically gifted students in a class, the lower the level of disruption. Similarly, the higher the proportion of kids with behavioural problems in a class, the higher the level of classroom disruption.

This places a great big spotlight on practices like ability streaming (or “sets”), even though we’ve known for donkey’s years that this is a bad practice and one that disproportionately affects lower-achieving students.

Strangely, the report – authored by England’s Behaviour Tsar, Mr Tom Bennett – makes absolutely no mention of such practices. In fact, the report champions another form of streaming by recommending that schools siphon off disruptive kids to “inclusion units” (a case of special education ventriloquism at its worst!) for some form of re-education.



Conveniently, evaluation of the evidence in support of such a recommendation is put off to some future date. Probably because the weight of the research evidence does not support the use of such settings, although we already know that some schools are quite happy to ignore the evidence when it comes to improving their position in the league tables…

Teacher characteristics

Not surprisingly, Jenkins and Ueno found that teachers with higher self-efficacy and more years of experience reported fewer disciplinary issues, although readers should bear in mind that this was self-report and tolerance may grow with experience.

Less experienced teachers reported higher levels of disruption in their classes, however, within-school practices such as streaming and lack of adequate induction for early career teachers may be implicated here as well. It is not unknown for early career teachers to be chucked into the lower sets and for more experienced teachers to be reserved for teaching the higher sets, particularly in those high-stakes senior secondary years.

Less experienced teachers certainly stand to benefit from clear behaviour policies and their consistent application by the school leadership, but most school leaders are aware of this and many schools have already adopted whole school frameworks, such as Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL).

Frameworks and policies are only as good as their implementation though and I’ve observed many a classroom in total chaos within an otherwise well-functioning PBL school! I know this next point won’t be popular, but the difference in many cases is the capability of the individual classroom teacher, which is sometimes stretched beyond capacity by the decisions made by those higher-up.

Should Australians read Tom Bennett’s behaviour report?

If you want but you need to be aware of its limitations. I’m also not sure how Australian principals and teachers will take to stuff like this:

Any behaviour that should be performed identically, most or all of the time, should be made into a routine, for example, which corridor side to walk down, how to queue for lunch. (p. 8)

On reading this advice, I was immediately worried, given that my children attend one of Australia’s largest high schools. So I asked them:

  • How on earth does this hormone driven swill navigate the narrow corridors of your bursting-at-the-seams school?
  • Have you been explicitly taught which side to walk on?
  • No???  Omg, how do you know what to do?  How do you make it to class every day and why doesn’t every change of period end in fisticuffs?

They each looked at me witheringly (in a way that lets you know that you are both stupid and old) and my eldest replied: “We just follow each other and take turns passing, Mum. It’s, like… not hard!”

People can fuss about which side of the corridor students should be told to walk (even though kids are not zombies and seem to be able to deduce this for themselves), but techniques such as this are small beer and won’t work when practices such as streaming, which are consistently shown to have negative effects (including the creation of unmanageable behavioural ghettos), continue unabated.


What’s missing?

There is NO acknowledgement in the report of the role played by curriculum and pedagogy. Perhaps that is because it is more politically expedient to blame the kids rather than take a good hard look at what is being taught and how well?

According to one teacher-blogger encouraging Australians to heed the advice in this UK Report, the idea that teaching practices might bear some relation to classroom behaviour has “had its day“.  As much as he might like that to be the case, the truth is that disruptive school behaviour is complex and multi-faceted, and it occurs within an ecological context of which teachers are an integral part.

It is both irresponsible and unscientific to ignore factors that shape that ecology, such as curriculum and pedagogy, just because some people would prefer us not to go there. Whilst it is only one study (of many), Jenkins and Ueno’s research suggests that classroom level factors may matter more than the school level factors on which England’s new behaviour report focuses most.

It would be a pity if their work is dismissed because it doesn’t fit the preferred narrative or because they aren’t teachers…








On Literature (with a capital ‘L’)

What makes literature great? According to Katie Ashford, Deputy Head and Director of Inclusion at *that school* in England, it’s got something to do with “aspects of the human condition that transcend time, place and personal interest”.

That, dear reader, is what is known as “motherhood statement” because it doesn’t really tell us very much. We have to deduce its meaning from clues elsewhere in the article. To me, the most telling clues are the statements indicating what is NOT great literature.

The Hunger Games, a three-part series written by Suzanne Collins, is offered as an example of teenage “pap”, which I find fascinating given that my daughter wrote about it in her final year of school.

In a speech responding to the prompt “Is Young Adult Fiction just for kids?”, she compared The Hunger Games and Orwell’s 1984 (an author who apparently does meet with Ashford’s approval). I think her points are highly relevant here:

Is Young Adult Fiction “just for kids”? *

Young Adult Fiction doesn’t have a great reputation. It isn’t considered high class literature; literature with a capital ‘L’. Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Macbeth: these are all considered great works of literature and each are named in the literary canon. The canon is a body of literature that is considered to be of superior or artistic merit; the type of literature that engages with deep ideas about what it means to be human. This is what gives great literature its ‘timeless’ appeal. For example, the jealousy and ambition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is still relevant today. That’s clear from the TV series, House of Cards. Frank and Claire Underwood could have been modelled on Lord and Lady Macbeth! But, literature that entertains is often called “popular” literature, as if there is something wrong with being entertaining.
Young Adult Fiction is dismissed in much the same way. Some people make the mistake of assuming that kids’ books aren’t capable of dealing with deep ideas. For that reason, Young Adult Fiction is perceived as a waste of time. Something that is “just for kids”. YAF typically focuses on a young lead character and explores themes that are important to adolescents. Things like relationships, jealousy, love, power, betrayal, class, and loss. As a reader of well-known Young Adult Fiction novels such as Red Queen, Outlander, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, I am here to persuade you that YA fiction is not “just for kids”. What most people don’t understand is that some YA novels deal with the same timeless themes as the great works of literature. I will demonstrate this today by comparing George Orwell’s 1984 with The Hunger Games, a now famous example of Young Adult Fiction, written by Suzanne Collins.
1984 is a dystopian novel that was written in 1949, just after the second World War. It tells the story of Winston Smith who lives in a country called Oceania, which is in a state of perpetual war and ruled by a ruthless political party: IngSoc. The head of this party is the infamous ‘Big Brother’ who is never actually seen in person but who is on posters and statues everywhere. We’ve all heard of the TV show ‘Big Brother’ and it may surprise you to know that the concept came from this novel.
1984 was futuristic in that it tried to predict what life would be like in 35 year’s time. On the wall of virtually every room is a ‘telescreen’; a big flat-screen that can never be switched off. It is a two-way telescreen and has two functions: it can broadcast propaganda, like the outcome of trials and the number of people killed in the war, and it can also watch what everyone is doing. No one knows when they are being watched or by who. This means that people begin to police their own behaviour, as well as distrust one another. The central point is that people in fear of each other are people who are easily controlled.
There is a clear parallel here between 1984 and ‘The Hunger Games’. Also set in a dystopian future, the totalitarian nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two “tributes” – one boy, one girl – are picked at random from each district to participate in the “Hunger Games”. The televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem. There is only one survivor from the 24 tributes and the districts are pitted against each other. As in ‘1984’, the footage of the games is played back to the people. This is in the form of reality TV to supposedly “entertain” but it actually increases the distrust between the districts. If the Districts fear each other, they’re hardly likely to rise up against the Capitol. Does this sound familiar?? Like I said earlier in relation to 1984, people in fear of each other are people who are easily controlled.
Every morning and afternoon on the train, I see grown adults reading Young Adult Fiction. It may not be for everyone but, as I have just demonstrated, some YA books deal with the same timeless concepts as classic adult literature. Concepts like freedom, power, and manipulation. The difference is that YA fiction engages with these concepts in ways that are more engaging and relevant to young people. It doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as juvenile, simply because it is entertaining.


Anyway, if my daughter’s right and The Hunger Games, and other YAF novels like it, touch on “aspects of the human condition” like freedom, power, manipulation, love, fear, jealousy and more, what makes the works of someone like Orwell or (god forbid), Chaucer, superior?

To borrow Ashford’s metaphor, why should we force our children to chew through these literary greens?

What makes these books preferred reading material for adolescents in the first few years of high school (as Ms Ashford’s students are)?

In other words, are Chaucer etc appropriate for 12-14 year olds?  Does it matter?

I think it does.

I was a voracious reader as a young person. My mother used to buy me stacks of books from the second-hand bookstore, but she could never buy enough to keep pace with me. So, when I had nothing to read, I would raid my Dad’s bookcase.

By the age of 10, I was reading Jane Austen, Wilbur Smith, Harold Robbins (!), George Orwell, James Joyce, Jeffrey Archer, Maeve Binchy, Daphne Du Maurier, Robert Ludlum, and more.

I didn’t really understand much of what I was reading, although the experience vastly expanded my vocabulary. A common childhood memory is my older sister sniping, “Don’t use words you don’t understand”. To which I’d smugly reply, “No, I think I’m using words you don’t understand”.

The concepts though, were well beyond my comprehension and it wasn’t until I was much older that I appreciated the subtext. Yes, we could have “discussed” the meaning over broccoli (bleuh), but for the most part Dad’s books didn’t interest me. In fact, some (Ulysses, WTAF??) just confirmed what I had long suspected: adults are weird.

I have two teenagers of my own now and all reports suggest that opinion of adults hasn’t changed. So what then is the purpose in making young people read books that were never actually written for them?

Let me phrase that another way to make an associated point: could there be value in the books that ARE written for them?

I think there is. And some of the books that my children’s teachers have selected have been outstanding. Not only are they age appropriate but they deal with complex concepts. You know, the kind supposedly only covered by “great (adult) literature”?

The ones that have stuck in my mind over recent years are:

Nanberry: Black Brother White


Chinese Cinderella: The true story of an unwanted daughter


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

In a diverse and complex world, these are the types of books I want my children to read and I’m grateful to my kids’ teachers for selecting them. There’s plenty of time for dead white guys, should they ever choose to read them. In the meantime, they get to learn about each other and the heritage of their friends.

They learn that everyone – no matter where they’re from, what they look like or what culture/religion they embrace – feels pain, sadness, joy and love.

They learn that people can do unspeakable things when one group feels superior to another.

They also learn that they – as white, middle class children of professional parents living in Australia – have freedoms and privileges of which some children can only dream.

And if I (or my son’s teachers) have to use The Day my Bum went Psycho covered in macaroni cheese as a gate-way drug to get my rugby-loving, school-hating son to read in order to learn these truths, that’s what we’ll do.

Because there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d read Chaucer, let alone develop a life-long love of reading from the experience.

And that’s not the result of low expectations, people.  That’s reality.

Try it sometime.




* Shared with my daughter’s permission and, yes, she had my help.







On Inclusion

Tom Bennett, secondary school teacher of philosophy and religion, English EduTwitter doyen, director of ResearchED, writer for the Times Education Supplement and the UK government’s “Behaviour Tsar” (who will be in Melbourne for ResearchED this coming weekend), said in the TES yesterday that “exclusion shouldn’t be a dirty word“. Apparently Tom is an advocate for exclusions as part of an effective school behaviour policy and has been for some time. I can’t say all that needs to be said on this subject in just one post, so I shall have to leave exclusion for another time. For now, I’d like to concentrate on inclusion.

Inclusion At All Costs?

In his TES article, Tom criticises something he calls “Inclusion At All Costs” (IAAC). This is not something with which I am familiar, perhaps because it is not a real policy and no one has ever advocated for it. From what I can gather from his article and a similar piece in The Conversation, “inclusion at all costs” is a phrase that one of The Guardian’s Secret Teachers used to describe the cost that the inclusion of a student with disability has for others; e.g., classroom teachers and the other 29 students in their class.

I can understand where Tom is coming from and have no doubt his frustration resonates with a great many teachers. But, there are a number of problems with his article, as well as the Secret Teacher piece, that I feel duty bound to point out. These problems revolve around the uncritical use of words like “mainstream”, the way that inclusion is being conceptualised, and the conflation of equity and equality.

These are common issues in the field of inclusive education; ones that we discuss with teachers completing LCN629: Inclusive Education, Theory, Policy & Practice as part of their Masters degree here at QUT. I first wrote about this back in 2008 with Roger Slee but it seems the situation has only gotten worse since then. So, perhaps it is time to make the point again (in plainer language)… 😉

Language matters.

Critiques of inclusion are revealing. Not only do they indicate how poorly governments have enacted inclusive education but they also give us an inkling as to why – after 20+ years – we’re (still) not there yet.

Let me turn to the Secret Teacher piece to illustrate what I mean.

Inclusion in principle is the right sentiment but, at best, it can come at a high price and, at worst, it can be a complete injustice. Children are individuals so the solution needs to be individual. There are plenty of examples of children with SEN who are successfully integrated in mainstream schools to the benefit of themselves and their peers. But if we want children with SEN to have the same opportunities to succeed as others, we should not feel guilty about admitting they may need a different environment in which to do this. Furthermore, our responsibility is to all children equally, not just those with SEN.

My first issue with this paragraph is the faulty conceptualisation of inclusive education. Whilst some might dismiss the conceptual slippage in this piece as pure semantics, that would simply reinforce the error.

This is because there is a difference between integration and inclusion. Anyone with knowledge in the area knows that the inclusion movement came about because a former movement, called integration, had failed. One of the reasons that integration failed is because students with disability were being placed into an unreconstructed “mainstream” with little support and next to no training for classroom teachers (sound familiar?) Another term that was used to describe this practice is “main-dumping”. Not hard to understand why it failed.

Inclusive education — as Len Barton, Roger Slee, Mel Ainscow, Suzanne Carrington, myself and many others have argued — requires the reconceptualisation of schooling. The problem is that this reconceptualisation hasn’t happened. Along the way, governments have given lip service to the ideals of inclusive education and have recognised the potential benefits for students both with and without disability, but most haven’t genuinely embraced the philosophy.


Well, this is going to sound cynical but I suspect the cost of reconceptualisation lost out to the savings that could be achieved by adopting the language of inclusion but leaving structures in place that meant only something resembling a rebadged form of integration was possible. This is why I said yes when Jarlath O’Brien asked me the other night if I thought New South Wales deserved an ‘F’ for inclusion. Instead of “Inclusion At All Costs” we should be talking about “Inclusion At Low Cost”.

When I said that inclusion requires us to reconceptualise schooling, I didn’t just mean building schools with ramps or retrofitting existing schools (again with the ramps). And I also wasn’t referring to more Integration Funding Support (small bundles of money to support individual students).

I meant thinking about students with disability and learning difficulties from the get-go.

Keeping them in mind when writing curriculum, designing assessments, providing teachers with release from face-to-face teaching to plan their lessons, as well as providing quality professional development (not just policy compliance infomercial sessions), and honestly assessing how much resourcing schools actually need to redevelop their practice, rather than providing only what Treasury will allow them to have.

It means governments recognising the perverse incentives inherent in their own policy concoctions, changing them and making sure that these never see the light of day again. For an example of what I mean, just consider what comparing students’ NAPLAN performance on the My School website does for the marketability of students with disability and/or the academic reputation of the inclusive schools that embrace them. Consider too the effect of a crowded curriculum within a high stakes testing culture on the ability of teachers to actually be inclusive.

Truth is, there has been a reconceptualisation of schooling in the last 20+ years but it has taken a completely different form than that argued by the proponents of inclusion. The relentless intensification of teachers’ work resulting from standardised assessment accountability frameworks and the pressure to achieve ever higher standards in contexts affected by increasing social inequality has contributed to an environment that is hostile to inclusion. Why aren’t critics of inclusion critiquing that??

Shifting the deckchairs

My second issue with the above paragraph from Secret Teacher is the uncritical reference to “mainstream schools”. It raises many questions for me, like:

  • What exactly is a mainstream school?
  • What do we mean when we say that?
  • Does the use of the term “mainstream” risk reinforcing the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all?
  • Might this be why we need “somewhere” (as Tom put it) else for all the students for whom that one-size doesn’t work?
  • What would need to change for us to instead use the term “inclusive schools”?
  • Local schools would actually have to be inclusive, right?
  • Could/should they be run as your local school is now?

If mainstream means “business as usual with teacher aides for students with disability”, as I suspect it does judging from what I have seen in my last 12 years of research in this area, then criticism should be directed at the right culprit (re-badged integration and an unreconstructed mainstream) and not inclusion, which argues for something else entirely. This too is something we have discussed in LCN629.

Equality, inequality and equity

My final issue with the Secret Teacher paragraph above – and Tom’s TES piece which covers similar territory – is the appeal to equality.  Thinking in terms of equality means everyone gets the same and it is a problem because it can lead to discrimination.

In the words of Felix Frankfurter (and no, he wasn’t the lead character in the Rocky Horror Picture Show), there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.

In previous writing, I’ve drawn on political philosophy and the metaphor of cutting a cake to explain the difference between equality and equity. Rather than giving everyone the same, equity means giving each what they need. Appeals to equality for all students – disabled and nondisabled alike – is either the result of ignorance or it’s an attempt to justify giving disabled students less.

Again, this is something that we’ve covered in LCN629 and the number of students who have used the graphic below to illustrate the difference between equality and equity suggests that they totally get it.

It’s about time everyone else with something to say about inclusion did too.

equality-equity cartoon






Hypocrisy & double-standards…

The Twitter Edublog-O’sphere is a fabulous playground for scholars interested in the politics of language. Perhaps that is why I follow so many English, history and humanities teachers on social media. People like @debsnet, @DrNomyn, @DrSRiddle and @GFThommo…

Oops, sorry!!  #mybad


According to the rules (being rewritten daily), my colleagues Stewart Riddle and Greg Thompson* are no longer teachers. Although they were both secondary school teachers for a decade or more, now that they’ve joined “The Academy”, they are now mere “educationalists” (like me).

As I understand it, this is something akin to being a potato.

Stew Riddle was so inspired by this clever caricature that he wrote a one-act play called “On being a ‘real’ teacher or perhaps a potato“.

Personally, I’d like to crowdfund a Stew-debut at the Brisbane Powerhouse. It could be like those Rocky Horror/Sound of Music re-enactments where the audience sings along? We could dine on a feast of creatively cooked potatoes and throw the dodgy ones at the non-teacher actors.  Right now, frankly, it feels like we’re chucking them at each other…

Just another day at the Potato Olympics

Surely an Olympic standard potato-throw was this week’s charge that I am a “non-teacher” “educationalist” who doesn’t like teachers.

Non-teacher tweets

An excellent throw!  I score it a 10.00   🙂

In all seriousness, I’m grateful to @greg_ashman (a real teacher at a real school in Victoria, Australia, which is also a real place in the real world) for pointing out my non-teacher status because it gives me an opportunity to point to the double-standards that I see being mobilised in the discourse around education, particularly when it comes to research.

Should ‘non-teachers’ be banned from education debate?

Teachers are absolutely central to education and no one would ever deny that. But teachers are not the only stakeholders and theirs, therefore, is not the only perspective that counts. Students are the largest stakeholder group, even just in terms of sheer numbers, though sadly their influence is disproportionately weak.

Despite the relative lack of consultation about all things educational, students’ views matter. For the most part, it is their lives we’re dissecting. Their learning, their struggles, their achievements, their emotions, their experiences, their worries, their future. Their “excuses” that we’re not having a bar of

I think most teachers would agree that students matter. After all, many of the teachers I know (and like very much, thank you) went into teaching because they want to make a difference to young people and, through those young people, make a difference to society itself. This centrality of students to all things education is why people like me*, Pat Thomson*, John Smyth*, and many others research student experience and value student voice.

Whilst not central in the same way as teachers and students, parents are also important stakeholders. Their values, perspectives and decisions matter too. They are the ones who choose the school that their child attends, they make the decisions upon which the logic of school markets depend, they are the ones who secure tutors. That’s why education researchers like Helen Proctor*, Karen Dooley* and Cathie Doherty* involve parents in their research.

Parents also know their children best, as most parents of a child with disability will tell you. They have that child’s medical and educational history etched into their memory and their child’s future is constantly in mind. That’s why education researchers like me*, Kathy Cologon*, Katherine Runswick-Cole* and others include parents in their research.

But, if we are to take these new parameters of educational discourse as directed, research by someone like me – indeed, all of the researchers that I’ve mentioned – is somehow irrelevant because we are not (or are no longer) school teachers. Further, it seems that any educational research that does not focus on “what works” within the four walls of a classroom (even if it wasn’t tested there) is also irrelevant.

It’s a very insular view and whilst I know it isn’t shared by the majority of teachers or even researchers, I think it needs to be called out anyway. It is also strikingly inconsistent with the bulk of the research that is being drawn upon to validate claims by these self-proclaimed revolutionaries. Research from the field of cognitive science, for example.

Getting (hypo)critical about non-teaching Members of the Academy

Now I, as a non-teacher Member of The Academy (hereafter n-tMoTA), have absolutely no problem with research from cognitive science. I respect what they do and, in my experience, the feeling is mutual. Some of my closest friends and colleagues are experimental cognitive scientists, psychologists and speech pathologists 😉 and we’ve learned a lot from each other in the years that we’ve been working together.

We also have a LOT of fun because we think so differently and there are genuinely funny moments when we each try to explain what we mean or what we want to do. It isn’t easy and respect for each other’s knowledge and expertise is essential to avoid a relationship-destroying paradigm war.

But – in public discourse about education, not within The Academy itself – it seems we have now arrived at a point in time where an op-ed piece by one n-tMoTA is considered valid evidence but the peer-reviewed research of another is not, simply because the latter’s area of expertise is education.

Yep. That’s right.

The views of non-teaching Members of the Academy who have not completed up to 9 years of study in the field of education, many of whom do not conduct school-based research, are those privileged in this brave new revolutionary world.

Meanwhile, the views of the ones who have completed up to 9 years study in education and who do school-based research (often with teachers) are dismissed with the derisive name of “non-teacher”.

Hypocrisy much?

No doubt my protagonist’s response will likely be that n-tMoTA’s in education (e.g., “educationalists” like me) do crap research, but that is a massive generalisation.

Even if there are some quality issues in education – and I agree that there are some – that is no justification to junk an entire field, along with the depth of knowledge and breadth of expertise within it.

Rather, I think there’s another strategy at play. One that aims to drive a wedge between education researchers and the teaching profession.

As a sociologist of education, this raises a number of questions for me, like:

  • Why?
  • Who benefits from these new arrangements?
  • And what will happen when ex-teachers (potato educationalists like Stewart Riddle, Pat Thomson, John Smyth, Helen Proctor, Karen Dooley, Cathie Doherty and Greg Thompson and maybe, one day, even you) are excluded from research in education?
  • What types of questions will not longer be asked??
  • Whose voices will be heard then?


* Each one of these researchers has been successful in securing external research funding from the Australian Research Council or the UK’s ESRC, including prestigious fellowships that are extremely competitive. Quite frankly, crap research doesn’t get a look in. External grant success is just one indicator of research quality… Research metrics is another but I shall write on that another day.

What “no excuses” & “zero tolerance” really means…

I’ve been watching the debate over the not-so-new “get tough” approach to student behaviour in England with a mixture of frustration, boredom, fatigue and just-can’t-help-myself fascination.

The truth is that this isn’t a new debate and these ideas have had their day in previous eras, with occasional bursts in from the cold in various jurisdictions.

Republican states in the US have been the most ardent supporters of zero tolerance approaches to school discipline, prompting extensive research that has provided evidence to show just how dangerous these approaches are. Just do a brief Google Scholar search on zero tolerance, disproportionality, early school leaving, and the school-to-prison-pipeline. You’ll see what I mean…

“No excuses discipline” is ineffective, in addition to being dangerous. Despite being dressed up as a new kind of social justice – one that promises to rescue the hapless chav from their bleak working class existence – the reality is that such an approach will not work with every young person. In fact, it is particularly unsuccessful with a certain type of student.

Sure, there are a lot of kids who will reward these approaches with compliance. They’ll keep quiet in the corridors, they’ll wear the correct uniform, they won’t talk in class, they’ll arrive prepared, and they might even do their homework!

But, and it’s a BIG but, this will not necessarily make them learn.

Ultimately, this is the one trump card that a kid has and it is extremely unwise for adults to forget that. In fact, if I had to point to one common characteristic among the young people I’ve worked with, in what we here in Australia call “behaviour schools” (somewhat like PRUs), it’s that these kids have worked out that there is NOTHING that anyone can do to make them learn.

Just in case some folks don’t get this, let me spell it out.

Eventually, after several years of school experience, some kids master task avoidance. They may do this overtly:

  • by disrupting others, deliberately derailing the lesson, not completing work and so on

…or they may do it covertly:

  • by going through the motions, by junking the information they’ve just heard and not attempting to encode it in their memory, by putting in minimal effort, by doing the littlest amount possible just for it to be seen to be done and to get the adults off their back.

Oh, and this isn’t a uniquely working class thing either. There are plenty of kids underachieving in our schools and I’m happy to speculate that a goodly number of them are of the second type.

When confronted with this reality many adults try to rationalise, saying that “Well, that’s not very sensible… pretty self-defeating… why would a kid do that?”

My answer to that is because sometimes to refuse to learn is the only power they feel they have. Plus, it has the added bonus of payback. A teacher’s job is to get students to learn. Refusing to learn is the ultimate rejection of teacher authority. Maybe that’s why it stings so much…

Rather than recognise any of this and thinking of ways to work with the kids who’ve actually figured this out, we have a simplistic debate about “no excuses discipline”. Ironically, this is the best way to create and/or exacerbate the problem I’ve just described.

What disturbs me about this latest debate is the “my way or the highway” discourse which is code for “if they don’t do what they’re told we have licence to abdicate from our responsibility as educators”. PHEW!!

In other words, we can abandon with impunity now because the student has exercised choice. They’ve chosen not to comply, they’ve chosen not to learn, so they can also choose to leave if they don’t like it. We can give up and live a peaceful existence teaching only the kids who want to be taught. DOUBLE PHEW!!

i see what you did ther

That’s what I read between the lines of the recent “no excuses discipline” debate and it’s wrong. It’s weakness, dressed up as strength. It’s capitulation rearticulated in solid sounding words that seek to make it acceptable to consign some young people to the scrap heap because, well, we’re right, they’re wrong and we always know best. And, besides, they chose this. They could have done what they were told to do!

Jarlath O’Brien referred to this as professional vanity and, I think rightly, pointed to the fear and professional insecurity feeding the “get tough or get out” mindset:

To completely refuse to look beneath the veneer suggests to me professional insecurity and, in some cases, fear. You would have to be professionally secure enough to admit, like the best schools do, that they don’t know it all, that improvements, either academic or in terms of behaviour, take an investment of time, energy and love (yes, I said it) in the child. You have to be professionally secure enough to know that the changes need to come first from the adults and the school, starting from where the child is at, and then celebrate the improvements and achievements that will surely follow.

Jarlath’s post was the catalyst for me to pen what I’ve been thinking, as it is similar but perhaps a little more pointed.

To my mind, the other thing that this “no excuses” discourse masks is the complete and utter refusal to consider that just *maybe* the kid has a point.

In other words, with a “no excuses”, “zero tolerance”, “like it or lump it” approach, systems, schools and teachers – who are that way inclined – can excuse themselves.

Teach badly?  No matter.

Curriculum is mind-numbingly boring and irrelevant?  So what.

Treat young people like they are indentured servants with no opportunity to exercise or extend their developing identity?  S’ok.

It’s okay because our uncompromising standards mean that those young people will have to leave and when they do they will become someone else’s problem. Then we can get on with teaching the kids who like or who can at least endure mind-numbing irrelevant curriculum taught poorly by autocratic teachers who know best.

That’s what I see lurking behind the latest strain of this particular discourse and it ain’t pretty.

It reminds me of something I wrote a long, long time ago. Such a shame that we’re back here again…

It is a discursive tactic that firmly positions the incorrigible child as the site of the educational problem, demarcating between children who “choose” to conform to prevailing norms and those who supposedly choose otherwise. This suggests not only equality of choice but that the “approved” choices are relevant and desirous to all. Ironically, it could be argued that the child who “chooses” otherwise is demonstrating more autonomy than the child who chooses the choice already made for him/her. Such is the chimera of “choice”. (Graham, 2007, p. 209)

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