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The results of neglect: The London Riots of 2011

I do not teach Dylan Page, but I know who he is. Everyone at our school knows who Dylan is. He comes and goes to lessons as he pleases, habitually swears at teachers, and is an accomplished playground bully. After a year of horrifying stories, there is not a single thing I could hear about Dylan's behaviour that I would not believe. 

During the school prize-giving ceremony at the end of the year, I was surprised to hear Dylan's name announced. He had collected one of the largest amounts of "reward stickers" in year seven, and was due to collect a prize. Many teachers, it turned out, had taken to bribing him with these stickers in a desperate attempt to appease his unruliness. As the school applauded his name, I thought of the dozens of his classmates who had had a year of learning ruined by this one pupil. Such is the moral condition of many of today's state schools. 

There has been renewed interest in the role of morality in schooling over the past year, with much of the debate centred on the importance of "character". In the aftermath of the dreadful energy released by the August riots in 2011, many public figures looked to schools to play a greater role in nurturing the character of their pupils. Speaking in the House of Lords after the emergency recalling of Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed the finger at an "educational philosophy" which over the last two decades has become "less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship — ‘civic excellence' as we might say." In May, the Master of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon, wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age."

While these commentators do diagnose a major problem with today's schooling, I fear that they do not realise quite what a battle the fulfilment of their suggestions would entail. Massed against the idea of character formation in state schools is an entrenched ideology which sees such a "moralising" agenda as reactionary and oppressive. Having been educated at a public school, where the ethos was still shaped by the 19th-century ideal of muscular Christianity, I had little idea what I was letting myself in for when I applied to teach at a struggling state secondary school. Many state schools, in both affluent and deprived areas, are actively amoral in their notion of how to nurture children. For those with the good fortune to have attended schools where a moral underpinning remains an unremarkable part of the institutional fabric, such a school is hard to imagine. So here is a brief picture. 

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October 9th, 2012
7:10 AM
You are, alas, so right about the way in which bribery and a blind eye has taken over from any sort of consistent discipline. Because the headmaster in many a modern school is, as you say, an administrator, he commands no respect with the pupils, most of whom he would not, in any case, recognise out of school uniform. A slew of "Behaviour Support Managers" and "Student Support Workers" have been brought in to "engage" with "disaffected" pupils, and the result is that those who least deserve it are the most rewarded. It strikes me that the modern educational system is most unfair on the middling pupil, who for the most part does what is asked of him, but who will never particularly distinguish himself academically. He receives neither the laurels and A stars of his more intelligent peers, nor the tangible rewards (often in the form of quite outrageous bribes, such as trainers and i-pods) of his ill-behaved classmates, who are often rewarded simply for not getting into trouble. There is, unfortunately, a lesson there for the rest of life - and a government which is trying to cut down on welfare payments would do well to look at the way schools function, and ensure that hard work and application really does reap rewards.

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