Sometimes strict teachers can be the worst at actually helping children learn…

The news today that assaults on teachers have risen to a five-year-high and that nearly 1,000 children are excluded from school every day got me thinking about behaviour in our schools.

I find headlines like this depressing because they actually tell us very little about what is really going on in schools. I suspect, though I certainly can’t prove, that government cut-backs have probably had an effect on children’s behaviour because valuable support such as having pastoral staff being paid to do things like make home-school contact and support teachers have been drastically cut recently.

Having engaged in various media debates about behaviour over the years, I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to generalise about behaviour in schools. My novel, that I’ve just published, The Last Day Of Term, details a fictional inner-city school which contains some very bad behaviour — there’s a major riot which leads to the death of a teacher — and yet, I think I make it clear that some teachers conduct very orderly lessons even within this context. The fact is that children who may be very poorly behaved with one teacher or in a particular context, actually behave well in others.

I’ve seen children rioting in some of the top schools in the country, not because the school was inherently poor but because the teacher just couldn’t keep control. Usually, the worst teachers are the ones that blame everyone — the system, the senior management, the curriculum etc — except themselves for the poor behaviour in their classrooms. Katherine Birbalsingh, the ex-deputy head, who is currently making a living out of saying all of our schools are riven with poor behaviour, seems just such a (ex) teacher.

But it gets more complicated than that. Even in lessons where some children may be running amok, other children may well be learning a lot. I’ve taken lessons like this myself; basically, I’ve realised that it’s useless trying to admonish certain pupils constantly, and far better to concentrate upon pupils who are willing to learn. This has worked better than trying to be “strict” and running detention after detention for pupils. So I’ve got the good pupils working in groups and given the more difficult ones exercises which they can cope with, learn from in a meaningful fashion and work on autonomously. The atmosphere hasn’t been very strict but it’s worked in the long run because there’s more of a positive vibe. One positive effect of a classroom where things are a bit “riotous” is that pupils know they have to do the work for themselves, that they have to work independently, that the teacher isn’t going to spoon-feed them. What educationalists call “deep learning” can really occur in them because the pupil and teacher have to encourage autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Teachers who are very strict can create the “surface” appearance of genuine learning, but often pupils feel too frightened to ask if they don’t understand and tend to imitate the teacher rather than genuinely learning about a subject themselves.


Published by: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

Categories Behaviour, LearningTags, , , , 7 Comments

7 thoughts on “Sometimes strict teachers can be the worst at actually helping children learn…”

  1. Just to say I think your baseless personal attack on Katharine Birbalsingh in the above is just disgusting.

    1. For pity’s sake, Francis.

      A few years ago it was you that was exposing the state of our broken education system at every opportunity. You have every right to change your mind and look on the positive side now, but when you demonise Katharine for doing the very same thing you used to do, how do you think you look?.

  2. I’m trying to show that the issues are complex. I’m not saying everything’s perfect — far from it — but I do think it’s important to stress the role of the teacher in all of this. Making blanket statements about the whole system is broken miss the mark. KB features prominently in the Mail article and makes the point that it’s not the teachers, but the system is to blame. I’m trying to say it’s more complicated than that.

  3. You get that saying someone is being too general in their condemnation of a problem, and saying thet you think they are a bad teacher, are not the same thing?

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