Source: The Daily Telegraph
The girl was ignoring me and playing music on her mobile phone, so loudly that the rest of the class could hear. I kept telling her to stop. Then suddenly she lost control. Standing up, she put her face inches from mine and shrieked: "Don't make me hurt you. I swear to God I will do it."
I was two days into my undercover investigation for a Channel 4 Dispatches programme when this incident happened. It was the first time I had felt physically threatened in school and the feeling stayed with me for a long time. Although extreme, this was the type of behaviour I encountered again and again in the 16 secondary schools I went in to, eventually filming those that seemed to be representative of the problems I saw.
Alex Dolan: ‘surprised, shocked, and deeply saddened’ by what she saw in the state school system
What struck me very early on was that poor, even outrageous indiscipline - children leaping across tables or wandering around brandishing fire extinguishers - had become acceptable. At one school, I was calmly advised by a female colleague to lock the classroom door while I was teaching, to "protect" myself and my class from the marauding groups in the corridors. The look of surprise on my face did not seem to register with her.
Time and again I would be surprised, and shocked, and eventually deeply saddened by what I saw in the state school system. A combination of classroom disorder, endless supply teachers, conscientious but jaded staff and school managers who seemed prepared to pretend that all was well had created a situation that was a million miles away from the Government rhetoric of rising standards.
Every day children told me that they could not learn, that there "was nowt to learn for". Yet in every chaotic classroom, there were one or two pupils huddled over books trying to do their work. It was these children who convinced me that the story had to be told.
I began my undercover investigation in October, working as a supply teacher in London and Leeds. Two weeks were spent at Intake High School Arts College, in the Yorkshire city, a school that had failed its last Office for Standards in Education report.
In my very first lesson, I spent 20 minutes trying to get children to be quiet, take their coats off, put away their mobile phones and stop hitting each other. Pupils were supposed to be studying for a GCSE exam on earth materials but when I mentioned the subject, one girl shouted out: "I haven't got a clue what earth materials are." It transpired that a staggering 26 supply teachers had taken the class since the start of the year.
I tried to teach them but had been left with no real instructions. In the worst example of this lack of planning, I was handed a scrap of paper with "draw a picture of your favourite food" written on it - that was for a class of 14-year-olds for an entire hour.
When Ofsted inspectors arrived the week after for a two-day visit, however, the school was suddenly transformed. I got through a whole lesson without incident, the corridors were mayhem-free, the atmosphere calmer. The mystery was solved by a classroom assistant who told me in a hushed exchange in the lavatory that more than 20 of the most difficult pupils had been sent on a "day trip".
As inspectors monitored lessons, senior managers popped up taking classes that they did not normally teach. Experienced teachers from neighbouring schools were parachuted in. One teacher, who appeared seemingly out of nowhere, said: "I've been drafted in basically to give support to this department while HMI are in. It's a bit of a con-job really." Staff at three other schools told me that "hiding" problem pupils from inspectors was common practice.
After each teaching stint, I came away asking whether what I encountered could really be typical of inner-city school life? In an attempt to get as accurate a picture as possible, I also registered with a London supply agency and was sent to Highbury Grove School, in north London. On my first day, I was told to "f*** off" by a 13-year-old boy. In my shocked naivety, I said: "You can't say that to me." He responded with a self-satisfied: "I just did."
Worried about the levels of disruption I was encountering, I asked a colleague if children were playing up because I was a supply teacher, only to be told that "it's normal, I promise you". And it was.
I filmed one instance in which three teenage girls talked among themselves, sucking lollipops and putting on their lipstick while a male teacher stood by repeatedly asking them to pay attention. Apart from the odd glance of utter contempt, he was ignored. When he pressed the "alert button" in an attempt to get another member of staff to remove the girls from class, nobody came. He was left standing, at the end of his tether, while the girls taunted him with: "There is nothing you can do."
"I had three fights in one lesson last week," another frustrated teacher told me in the staff room. "When the fourth one started, I just couldn't be bothered. No one does anything here."
Meanwhile, a senior teacher who admitted the school was still drawing up its behaviour policy, seemed bemused by what was going on: "You can walk into any classroom at random and there isn't much learning going on because of various forms of disruption," he said. "When they tell their parents of their experiences, I'm surprised that the parents don't take action. I mean, I certainly would."
A very rosy picture is being painted by the Government of standards getting better and GCSE results improving every year, while the reality of what I saw in those 16 schools was very different. Behind the statistics there are schools deliberately misleading inspectors, league tables being manipulated, widespread out-of-control behaviour, violence, swearing. Schools are under immense pressure not to exclude badly behaved children, yet they do not seem to have the resources to deal with them properly or the funding to have smaller classes or more classroom assistants.
When more than a third of children on the roll have behaviour problems, even the most dedicated teachers - and I met many during my investigation - are fighting a losing battle. The end result is that these schools are not "normal comprehensives" and there is no way that the children in them get anything like the kind of education that one would expect to get in a "normal" school.
Even in schools that seemed to offer some hope, where results were rising, things were not all that they seemed. St Aloysius Roman Catholic College for boys in Islington, north London, should have been a showcase for New Labour, with a rise last year of 19 per cent in the number of pupils gaining five A* to C grades.
It is true that I had one of my best lessons at the school, behaviour was invariably good and children were learning. At this school, the behaviour balance seems to have gone to the other extreme, under the Government's banner of "zero-tolerance". Staff called pupils "total scum" after an incident of vandalism, and shouted at them to "bugger off, go home, we don't want you". In another incident, recalled by a colleague, 25 children were made to sit in the hall for three days. Just sit there, with no work.
The school's rapid improvement in results was also far from straightforward. Average or above-average ability students were entered for vocational qualifications, worth four GCSEs, which are generally aimed at the less able. Here, as elsewhere, the pressure of league tables meant teachers "lived or died" by their results.
We have gone to great lengths to protect the identity of the people in the programme but undoubtedly there will be criticism of our secret filming. People may say that the programme is not fair to the schools involved, but I believe that it is not fair for the pupils in those schools to be condemned to a rough deal every day. That is my defence.
In moments of doubt, I will remember the 15-year-old girl from Intake High, bright and cheerful despite the chaos, who started to write a letter to Tony Blair in class. It began: "Dear Prime Minister, me and my colleagues have a problem. We have had 26 supply teachers since the start of the year, when we should have a proper teacher because our GCSEs are at risk."
I hope she sent it. I really hope she did.