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We need a class analysis of the control pedagogies now emerging in our schools

Award-winning teacher PHIL BEADLE argues that the way the most authoritarian moves in education, like the bizarre practice of ‘silent corridors,’ are mainly inflicted on working-class pupils has dark overtones of fascistic logic

I HAVE had the honour, in my 27 years of working in classrooms, of working in all sectors of education (except nursery for which I don’t have the skillset). I’ve worked in the independent sector in other countries and count senior figures in that sector as friends. They are unfailingly polite and are nice erudite people. I still think their schools should be dismantled, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a friendly discussion.

What I have learnt in my time in that sector is that the children of the sometimes wealthy (not all are), are subject to schooling that is characterised by an enlightened liberalism, and their curriculum offer is filled with arts provision, replete with drama and music.

If you could put your political integrity to one side, you might want your children to experience such a curriculum. Generally, the teaching is a little less skilled, but there are some very well-educated people and charming people in the independent sector.

Most of my career, however, has been spent at the opposite end. It is where I am comfortable and where I feel I am needed. I am currently teaching in Lambeth and, over the years, have attained a reputation that has involved publishing widely on the subject of teaching, on creativity and on the political implications of education policy.

Those books have been translated into many different languages. I’ve won three national awards and have a couple of honorary doctorates for services to teaching.

My approach to the teaching of my predominantly working-class students has always been what my friend, Luke Shoveller, identified as constructing a form of “managed freedom.”

I understand rules are important as the boundaries keep us safe so that we can be experimental in our learning. But I am also of the view that there are those who, perhaps through lack of imagination, perhaps through fear of children, can tend towards fetishising the rules as the aim themselves. I am not one of them.

I note darkness descending, however, which has become increasingly more prevalent in the period of this government: pedagogies that seek to control the students’ very being, their habitus, their right to even speak, and the way they must sit.

I recently blogged about the book Teach Like a Champion and its insistence on a technique called “SLANT” — “sit up, listen, ask and answer, nod, track the teacher.” I have issues with these instructions but am seeking a middle way with Doug Lemov, its author, through which we might learn from each other.

The practice I find most truly Orwellian is the recent fashion for silent corridors. Corridors in tough schools can be rowdy, and this may be a significant understatement but, for me, forcing working-class children to walk in single file where they are banned from speaking to each other seems to have been drawn from some dystopian sci-fi movie and the people who have implemented the practice are so dense they did not pick up it was, in fact, a rather brutish and rather obvious satire of authoritarianism.

One is almost banned from using the term fascism even if it applies as your judgement of such a technique is that appears to be a frightening move towards such a state. If you use the word, you will be accused of Godwinism no matter how apposite your use of that political term is.

In a recent interview on a radio station, I described such techniques, carefully, as “a precursor to a version of fascism.” The interviewer laughed. I will admit to rudeness in my response and apologise for that rudeness.

But we are now in a situation in British education where dissent about control techniques which exert authoritarian control over the bodies and even the ability to speak of working-class children is far from just a fashion.

It has become an expectation and anyone who seeks to speak for the rights of children to be freed of such chains is made into the object of humour. First they laugh at you, then they call you insane.

For me, we are in a very dark time in British schools, a time in which “cult” schools enforce compulsory mind control over graduate professionals. A recent job advert stated that the “expert” teacher “must value our warm strict environment with silent transitions.”

You must believe that our arguably abusive behaviour policies are correct, or you may not work here. You may have no opinion other than the compulsory one.

This is indubitably Orwellian, making the idea of a freethinking teacher a threat to a controlling orthodoxy and contributing to education becoming an inadvertent satire of itself.

Things are improbably dark in British education at the moment, and activists should stand up — prepare to be insulted and to be made into comedy — but also to be counted.

I’m happy to act as some form of vanguard in this, should such a person have any value. And I am equally happy to be the object of derision. Our children are too valuable to be the subject of abusive control pedagogies — it is time to stand against them.

Phil Beadle is a teacher and author who has written extensively on literacy, social capital and white working-class achievement — www.philbeadle.com.

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