21 September 2018

‘I don’t trust them, they’re kids.’

Is an interesting opening gambit for an article which is meant to outline the positive impact your school is having. But that is what Katharine Birbalsingh chose to do in an article published in the Times Education Supplement in July of this year. She is the Headteacher of the Michaela Community School in London, which operates a ‘no excuses’ behaviour policy.

How much trust should we place in young people? It is a question to contemplate both as a teacher and as a parent. In a previous bulletin I referenced a grizzled former colleague who bemoaned the lack of noticeable youth culture on the yard. He always had a unique world view and, whilst mooching around on bus duty, would say about the arriving students, ’How many of them would you turn your back on in class? How many of them would you trust if you left the classroom?’ As an enthusiastic teacher just starting out, I couldn’t actually fathom why someone would leave a classroom when they were meant to be teaching the children in it, but also felt that I would trust all, or most, of the students that I met. 22 years later I still believe that, but experience has also taught me that students need clear boundaries and a sense of structure. If those things are missing, they will move into the available space and fill it with ‘teenage spontaneity and youthful energy.’

There is also a parental aspect of trust. In my first year as Assistant Headteacher I was asked to speak at a meeting for new Year 7 parents. The session was based upon how different subjects were taught. After my presentation I asked if there were any questions. Indeed there were, lots of them.  None of which were about teaching or subjects. ‘How can I check what my son is eating for lunch each day? How long should a school skirt be? What about ties? Why isn’t jewellery allowed? What temperature are the fridges maintained at if cooking ingredients are stored in the morning, but not used until the afternoon?’ I answered these questions to the best of my ability (read: badly) and then a new line of questioning opened up. ’Is it possible to come in and see my daughter working in the classroom? Can I volunteer as an assistant in my child’s class?’ Whilst beginning to answer, I noticed that the Headteacher was present and had taken a seat, ominously, in the corner of the room. She was listening intently. I stumbled through an answer, noting that we always welcomed volunteers and that we might be able to arrange something if they wanted to observe a lesson. At this point the Headteacher stood up and gave her perspective. Below is an approximation of that response:

“I think that you coming into school is a very bad idea. It suggests, either, that you don’t trust your daughter, or that you don’t trust us. School is where your daughter comes to grow up, away from her parents and the last thing she needs, as she becomes more independent, is her dad hanging around the place. She needs time and space to become her own person and we provide that. If it is that you don’t trust us, then we need to talk about that, because we’re experienced public servants and we know what we are doing and care about doing it properly.’

On balance, I think you’ll agree that her response was slightly better than mine. I’m also aware that this is a very difficult message to hear as a parent. The individual in question took it in the spirit intended and acknowledged that he had been heavily involved at primary school and moving away from that had proven difficult. Acting as a helper or observing your child on the yard might be sorely tempting, but it probably won’t help your relationship at home as they grow up.

Therefore, trust is hugely important. We have to trust the students. You have to trust both us and your children. Within that context, it is also important to acknowledge that mistakes will be made. Katharine Birbalsingh might well be correct not to trust some students when it comes to issues regarding uniform. I wrote to all parents in July about uniform and we sent home a leaflet outlining the school’s policy at that time. I would like to thank the vast majority of parents and students for fully supporting us. The students look smart and represent the school wonderfully well. This week it has become apparent, however, that some parents trusted their sons and daughters a little too fully when they said that tight skirts and trousers made from stretchy material featured as part of our school uniform policy. They obviously don’t, but students will try these things in order to see where the boundaries are. We have been very fair with students this week and have provided time to sort uniform out. Please support us by making sure that you are familiar with the uniform policy outlined below and trust us when we say that wearing the correct uniform is important.