The Schools Secretary Ed Balls's admission that behaviour in a quarter of English schools is unacceptable, despite their being graded as satisfactory, blows the gaff on Ofsted's system of categorising schools.
Every teacher knows that Ofsted's judgement of "satisfactory" usually means just the opposite. Deep depression can fall on a whole staffroom when Oftsed's inspectors conclude that what they have seen is, in their view, only worthy of the description "satisfactory."
Leaving aside the questionable reliability of these Ofsted judgements based largely as they are on looking at paperwork, this Orwellian distortion of the meaning of words masks the fact that secondary education in England is riddled with dysfunction.
Within many schools, and across the secondary landscape as a whole, there is a yawning gap between the best and the worst behaved children. For every shining and inspiring example of achievement, where mature and motivated pupils surge ahead in their learning – and these exist in every school – there is a classroom, corridor or playground harbouring an attitude towards education that's a sour mixture of indifference and hostility. If we were really honest, we would admit that in virtually every school, to a greater or lesser degree, too much behaviour is not satisfactory.
For the past four years I've been working as a part time supply teacher in and around London, accumulating experience at more than 20 different schools of every shape and size: single sex, mixed, religious, secular, Academies, and posh-sounding colleges with impressive specialisms. A few have been classified by Ofsted as outstanding. But almost everywhere, to some degree, I encounter in my own classrooms, and hear in adjoining ones and along corridors, behaviour that is breathtakingly rude.
In the past few weeks alone, in three different schools, I've come across the following: a 15-year old boy refusing to stop talking on his mobile phone during a lesson and telling me to "get out of my face" when challenged; a 13-year-old girl, intent on walking out of my classroom, ignoring my request to return to her desk with the words "you can't touch me. I'll go if I want to;" and an experienced teacher trying to tell two boys to stop fighting in the corridor, but being totally ignored.
These examples are, of course, relatively rare spikes of extreme defiance. But they protrude from a terrain where lower level non-cooperation and disruption is far from uncommon. Too many teachers spend too much time battling to stop children disrupting lessons by chatting, swearing at each other, or refusing to follow simple instructions. Meanwhile, the well-behaved, eager pupils are deprived of the teacher's attention.
I believe that bad behaviour, and the surly hostility to education that lies behind it, outweighs every other factor in explaining (to pick just one depressing statistic) the fact that about half of 16-year-olds finish their 11 years of compulsory education without the level of literacy and numeracy regarded as necessary to function in the world of work. It also accounts for the devastating haemorrhage of qualified teachers from the profession every year.
So, what do we do about it? First, be more honest about the problem and ditch the deliberately deceptive use of the word "satisfactory."
Second, allow all head teachers to treat behaviour as their top priority, ahead of all other demands. This means radically cutting back on the over-burdensome list of requirements currently placed on schools. If re-establishing good behaviour means shelving worthy "healthy schools" policies and gifted and talented programmes, and ignoring the latest demand from Whitehall or town hall for pointless data, then so be it.
Third, give heads real financial help to pay for the facilities and manpower to achieve these ends. Tackling and turning round bad behaviour can suck in hours of time of numerous teachers and other adults. Quick fixes do not exist. Finally – and this message is for everyone in the world outside the school gate – stop focusing exclusively on schools!
Declining standards of behaviour from children and teenagers are a reflection of worsening behaviour in society as a whole. All adults who care about this, whether in the home, street or workplace, should take every opportunity to display civil behaviour themselves, to challenge rudeness and incivility whenever it occurs, and to ensure that nothing they do contributes to the drip, drip decline of standards of personal discipline that has so scarred our country in recent decades.
The writer is a supply teacher living in London