• By Michael Little
  • Posted on Thursday 17th September, 2009

Back to school

Its back to school time. A little later in England than in the US. A week into the new term I ask my 13 year old daughter how it is going.She says she mostly has good teachers this academic year. What is the difference between a good and a bad teacher I ask.Her reply goes something along the following lines. If you are in a class with some difficult students, then you want a teacher who is quite strict. But if you are in a class with students who all want to learn, you don’t want a strict teacher, you want one who will let you express yourself a little, and try new things out to let you learn.And then she gives me a little cameo of a teacher who is strict in a class full of good students, and its negative consequences. (She assumes I know the effects of a lax teacher managing a group of troublesome students).She goes to a school whose students exhibit the typical range of behaviors. I know this because as a favor the Social Research Unit surveyed the entire school body using Goodman’s SDQ. (The school’s leaders didn’t like the results because they presumed students were happier and better behaved and more pro-social than they actually were, so the results never saw the light of day).According to OFSTED - the UK school's inspector - and their very doubtful methods of assessment, the school is satisfactory (third on a grade that extends from 1 ‘outstanding’ to 4 ‘inadequate’, with a good capacity for sustained improvement. My lay person’s assessment -more doubtful than that of OFSTED- is that its an average school that thinks it is better than it is; and that it serves kids whose parents, like me, think they are better than they are.A more objective assessment is that it is a school I am happy for my children to attend. It is adequate, and my kids can walk to school and back.My 13 year old daughter is not a prevention scientist. But if her hunch is right, then perhaps we could do more to manage classroom mix. I remain convinced that Tom Dishion should get a Nobel prize for his discovery that placing groups of anti-social children together is a very effective way to increase anti-social behavior (probably the least acted on reliable finding in the history of children’s services) . But what proportion of anti-social kids can a class support? And is there a way of finding an optimal mix between teacher competences and the ratio of anti-social kids in a class?

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