Monthly Archives: December 2015

20 Observations I made at a London inner-city school 

Over the past 3 months I have been working at a London inner-city school. Having been educated in the German system I was able to experience a British school with a contrasting perspective. Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

  1. Students line up outside the classroom and before the lesson and inside the classroom after the lesson, waiting for the teacher to invite them in or release them, respectively. They also line up after lunch break to enter the building in an orderly fashion
  2. Yellow separating lines in the corridors and on stairs make sure that two-way traffic is possible within the school building.
  3. Between lessons the teaching staff stand in the corridors to make sure that students get to their next class in a quiet and orderly fashion.
  4. Students wear school uniforms. Students in casual attire may not enter the school building. Teachers are asked to dress formally and address each other with ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. Addressing a teacher by their first name is not allowed.
  5. Nike and Adidas backpacks are terribly fashionable. I estimate that 90% of all students have one. Similarly, sports shoes are a source of pride, especially for the boys.
  6. Mobile phones are strictly prohibited on school grounds. Any spotted device will be immediately confiscated for at least a number of days.
  7. In class, each student has a work book for every subject, which they are not allowed to take home. The teachers keep them, grade the quality of the work and provide written feedback. Worksheets are glued in.
  8. Teachers try to minimise passive learning (classical teaching) and try to engage students through activities – from crossword puzzles to tinkering with circuit boards.
  9. Teachers need to be able to prove that learning occurs in every single lesson. Therefore, teachers present the ‘learning objectives’ at the beginning of the class. At the end of the lesson the students have to write into their workbooks what they learned in that lesson. 
  10. Teachers have access to a database, which details previous, current and expected grades as well as any identified special needs (e.g. learning difficulties, emotional or psychological instabilities) and financial standing (free school meals) for every student. This information is used to provide extra support for disadvantaged students.
  11. The date is also used to set the difficulty of the tasks during the lesson as well as the difficulty of the homework. Teachers are held accountable for providing each student with the appropriate difficulty. It may be that the teacher has to prepare the same worksheet in three variants in order to cover all the levels of ability of the students in a class. On top of that come special needs students.
  12. A number of staff members deal exclusively with the special needs students. They offer one-on-one tutoring and lots of psychological coaching (anger management, self-confidence building).
  13. Teachers can ask lab technicians to organise an experiment in advance and have the materials delivered to the classroom. Sometimes the lab technicians will even perform demonstrations (e.g. alkali metals in water).
  14. Students of a year group (year 7, year 8 etc,) are organised into classes (7A, 7B etc.) based on their levels of ability. The most able students are in the A-set (7A, 8A etc.). A year 8 student may be in 8A for English, but in 8C for Science and in 8D for History.
  15. Every six weeks the students are reevaluated and can move up or down in the classes. In rare cases, students can skip a year. Repeating a year practically never happens.
  16. When a student disrupts the class the teacher writes the names on the board. Two further disruptions lead to a ‘demerit’ (a negative point that is recorded school-internally). A third disruption can lead to same-day detention. Students may also be sent outside the classroom for a few minutes or their parents might get a ‘bad news slip’, which details their disruptive behaviour.
  17. Every week a few kids get excluded from school for a few days due to improper behaviour. A kid tried to trip me, which led to a two-day exclusion.
  18. The so called ‘pastoral managers’ are equipped with walkie-talkies and assist teachers upon request by paying classrooms a visit and restoring behaviour that is conducive for learning. They have the power to keep, exclude and expel students. They are highly respected by the students.
  19. Good behaviour is rewarded with ‘merits’, which are – just like demerits –accumulated over the year. Merits can lead to great prizes such as a Samsung tablet or a bicycle, while demerits may result in the student not being allowed to go on school trips. Students can be expelled on the basis of bad behavior.
  20. Every classroom is equipped with a surveillance camera, which is often times used as evidence when one statement stands against another statement. One kid was caught frequently disconnecting the power cable from the computer to stall the class.

Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

Merry Christmas!


School in Prison – An Experience Report

Disclaimer: The name of the prison is not mentioned and the names of the inmates have been altered for privacy protection purposes. 

7092845355_bc0bdb1453_k (1)9 AM. Security guards line up along the corridor at a young offenders prison in the UK. They escort one inmate at a time to their respective classroom. I only carry my notepad and a pen – anything else including phones is strictly prohibited. The inmates are between 15 and 18 years old and wear grey sweatshirts and sweatpants. As they walk down the corridor they turn and shout, asking for my name – clearly not shy. The large majority of them committed thefts or robberies, but a handful are in for murder or rape. I don’t know who is in for what and some of my colleagues have chosen not to inquire. They say it changes your perception of the inmate in a negative way. Together with Maggie, an art teacher, I wait in the corridor until all inmates have entered. She unlocks the classroom door using one of the keys on her heavy keychain that she carries in a special pocket fixed around her belt. She locks the door behind us.

12528604_83f1f5e748_oI meet Andrei, a 16 year old who moved with his family from Rumania to the UK. Andrei is a Romani (‘Gypsy’). He was caught by the police robbing a corner store and was sentenced to half a year in prison. I am told that he could hardly speak English when he arrived three months ago, but he has come a long way since then. I find him arguing with his British inmates about whether the Volga is an actual river. In March he will be deported back to Rumania, where his father as well as his girlfriend are waiting for him. He is supposed to get married and expects to have children very soon. He wants to live in Germany some day. His mom took off along with his three sisters after she found out that he had smoked weed. I can see how is cheerful character recedes as he tells me that he may never see them again. It truly pains him. He promised himself never to smoke weed again and hopes to make things right with his mom in the future. Like most of the inmates Andrei regrets what he did. When I was asked about what the inmates were like I found myself saying over and over again: “They’re just kids who did something stupid.”

On a Friday we admitted a 16 year old boy named Mark who had robbed a woman with two of his buddies on the street. Mark was clearly frightened as he was only incarcerated yesterday. He seemed quite shaken, but accepting of his new reality. I can only imagine how tough it must be for a 16 year old to lie in his bed at night, inside a locked room, listening to the other inmates shouting through the walls, trying to have a conversation. No soothing words of your parents across the phone line, no internet to distract your mind. The full realisation of your situation sinks in.

Mark tried to commit suicide over the weekend. He is now being monitored very closely.

5997920696_ecb224068e_bThe plexiglas windows have steel bar reinforcements and the doors are locked by the teacher from the inside. In case of an emergency, the teacher can press a green button on the wall, which will summon security guards within 10-20 seconds. A lot can happen in 20 seconds, given you reach the green button. There have been cases of violence against teachers – it’s a very real job hazard. However, most of the violence occurs between the inmates. I saw security guards rushing past my classroom because a boy had thrown chairs at another boy. He had to get stitches. In one of my classes, one of my boys threw another over the table – supposedly play fighting. It’s understandable why teachers refrain from pushing the kids too much.

school education prisonIn theory, the boys have excellent conditions to pursue their school work. They get 30 hours of education per week, classes have no more than 2-7 students and teachers can often times tutor them on a one-on-one basis. The lessons can be tailored to individual goals and needs. Every inmate gets a cell with a desk and a chair to work in peace. The classrooms are just 3 minutes away by foot. Ideal conditions – in theory.

In practice, most of the kids hardly make any progress. Most of them were never good at school and never learned how to work with discipline and persistence. Most of them don’t have academic goals such as passing their GCSE or A-Levels. An achievement mindset has to be taught – primarily by the parents who set an example. Many of the inmates have poor socio-economic backgrounds, nobody to push them forward and no emphasis on education. The teachers they meet in prison are in many cases the only person in a long time who tries to push them forward academically.

It pains me to see that many teachers actually don’t push the inmates very much. The drive and the sense of accountability that I felt in the presence of other teachers at an outstanding school in central London was missing inside the prison. Teachers don’t stick around long enough to build deep enough relationships. Maybe, teachers have little hope in truly having an impact on the lives of these children. Many of them only stay for 100 days or half a year and then return to the very environment in which they derailed in the first place. It is difficult – if not impossible – to achieve true and lasting changes in a young person’s life within such a short amount of time. Education is all about patience. A the delicate offshoot needs to grow in a protected space until strong enough to stand by itself. Teachers cannot be expected to solve such deep running problems within 100 days. Maybe they don’t push the inmates because they have no hope for them.

Connor was by far the brightest student I met during my stay. He was 17 years old and hasn’t gone to school for three years. He wanted to know what the Large Hadron Collider does and whether cancer will soon be curable in all cases I explained to him how mutations lead to cancer, why they are detrimental for the body, how chemotherapy works and why a bone-marrow transplant is such an ingenious therapy for Leukemia patients. His thirst for knowledge was incredible and much more than that of any student I have ever met in school. He told he he wants to do his GCSE and A-Levels, but thinks these degrees are unattainable for him. He lacks a lot of self-confidence.

Even if Connor pushes himself over the remaining half year in prison he will probably not continue on a success trajectory. Many return to prison because they derail in their home environments – just like they did in the first place. There are exceptions to the rule and I hope that Connor can pull through, but the odds are stacked against him. Conner does have more of a shot than the others and it is for inmates like him that teachers have to continue pushing.

Yes, Andrei, Mark and Conner have the odds stacked against them. Teachers can only influence them for a short period of time, they’ll return to the same environment that got them into prison and will likely be back in a few  months. Education will only be stressed inside prison. But maybe, if teachers push the inmates enough, they can foster enough self-confidence and communicate the importance of education so that the boys can continue on that trajectory without external help. In an ideal world, the prison would offer an intervention plan that stretches beyond their prison stay. They would get the needed support until they can support themselves. In the end they are just kids who did something stupid and don’t have the support they need. They are lost and need guidance from adults who care about them and their academic achievements. 30 hours of school per week is a good start, but hardly enough for the most needy kids out societies. May these kids beat the odds. I wish them all the best.

A Case for More Discipline in Education

In Summary

  1. This post is based on a leading German education veteran called Bernhard Bueb who led the renowned boarding school Schule Schloss Salem in south Germany.
  2. He argues that the ability to ‘make an effort’  has to be taught to young people repetitively
  3. This can only occur if students accept their parents and teachers as their leaders who act in their interest.
  4. Parents and teachers carry the responsibility to act as potters who mould their children by setting appropriate tasks.
  5. As young people develop the ability to set their own goals and pursue them they earn independence of external guidance.
  6. Discipline should ideally lead to self-discipline, but it takes a lot of leadership from adults and lot of trust and discipline from young people. An old saying: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness”


What This Post is Based on

bs-buebThe Schule Schloss Salem is a world renowned boarding school located in the south of Germany. It has been educating the elite since 1920 including Prince Philip – Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Sofia of Spain and Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark. Bernhard Bueb, headmaster of the school between 1974-2005, published a bestselling book in 2006 entitled “Lob der Disziplin: Eine Streitschrift” (translation: “Praising Discipline: A Polemic”) (Source). In it, Mr. Bueb talks about the importance of discipline in education, as witnessed at Schule Schloss Salem. This post recounts some of the points he made to an English speaking audience.

The Gardener’s Rule

People usually don’t like the word ‘discipline’ very much. We associate it with things like duty, rules, self-control and even compulsion and submission. Discipline requires effort, which humans actively try to avoid. However, we admire people who are disciplined. It is a universally sought after character trait because it allows one to overcome difficulties and reach goals.

PotterPlantBueb groups teachers and their teaching styles into gardeners and potters.  Teaching like a gardener means to promote, foster, nurture, encourage, facilitate and support your students. They believe that students will find their way all by themselves if they follow their interests and get the necessary support from their teachers.
On the other hand, teaching like a potter means to force, demand and push students as well as subject them to the leadership of the teacher. In other words, they demand discipline. Such teachers see themselves as blind dogs that guide students along a path they believe to be appropriate.

Today’s zeitgeist clearly favours the gardener. The teaching profession is shifting from a role of authority and leadership to a role of mentoring and nurturing. Students are given more and more choice in their studies and their extracurricular activities instead of having teachers decide what would be most appropriate for them. I would like to argue for the potters among the teachers. I believe we need more discipline in schools because it is in the best interest of the very students we teach.


Discipline is Effort

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 22.51.00An infant is hardly able to suppress its desires. It acts out of pure impulse. By forcing a young person to do something they don’t like they can learn to appreciate the positive outcomes that come with effort. They learn that suppressing their impulses and resist temptations can have great benefits. The graph below illustrates how we reach our goals by overcoming initial effort. For example, a student prepares tirelessly for the big drama class performance. Another student studies for days on end for the upcoming exams. Such behaviour is not trivial and needs to be taught through many cycles of repetition. It takes many years of schooling and lots of parental guidance to engrain an understanding of how making an effort leads to desirable outcomes. Eventually, students learn to discipline themselves and become free from guidance – they become more free.


Discipline and Freedom

In school, teachers impose their authority over students by setting challenging tasks they don’t necessarily want to do because teachers want them to experience the positive outcomes of their demands. With time, students learn to apply their effort-making abilities to reach their own goals, essentially achieving self-discipline. This earns them more freedom because they become able to pursue their own goals without the guidance of a mentor. However, the first steps in their early years can only be achieved with the help of enforced guidance because young people are most of the time not able to see the advantages of making an effort without having experienced it themselves. The German poet Paul Fläming said that “he who masters and can control himself can conquer the whole wide world” (translated from German).

Children think that freedom means the exemption of rules (e.g. ‘the freedom to drink alcohol’ or ‘the freedom to stay at the party until midnight’). These rules exist for the protection of young people. They can be lifted if children show that they can handle that freedom responsibly. In the ideal case, parents and teachers act like a benevolent dictatorship that gives more freedom to a child as it matures.


Discipline Requires Trust

6060083868_4b51418347_bRelationships are two-way streets. Although young children are strongly dependent on adults to guide them, they must in return have to know that adults are acting in their interest. The idea is that children will only make an effort if they trust the guiding adult. Teachers must be accepted as professionals who know the student, can guide him or her through the education landscape and towards a brighter future. Think of teachers as guide dogs. They know the terrain and can guide each student along a certain path depending on their needs. But they can only do so if the student trusts their leadership and willingly completes the guidelines. Teachers could let students wander the forest by themselves and make sure they progress. However, only by forcing students along certain paths can they learn to appreciate things that lay outside of their perspective. An old saying is very fitting at this point: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness.”


What to Do?

Bernhard Bueb suggests that schools should teach their students more discipline. The goal still is to educate independent minds that can set and pursue their own goals without the guidance of another person, but that ability needs to be taught. Teachers and the school leadership should use their knowledge of the individual student to select coursework and activities that are more beneficial to the development of the student. This requires that students and parents trust the judgment of teachers and school leadership to make the right choices towards the development of a child. Asking young people to do things they don’t like (e.g. coursework) will strain the relationship to the student, but it can endure if the student can trust the leadership of the teacher.

I’d love to hear your opinion on this. Do you agree with this train of thought and have something to add? Do you have some counter-arguments?