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Too tough to teach

James McAsh

Too Tough to Teach was a Channel 5 documentary about  Ian Mikardo High School, recorded over six months in 2014.  You did not have to watch it for long to realise that it is pretty unusual. At first glance, the chaotic scenes of violence, swearing, and theft might have convinced you that the school is doing almost everything wrong. Indeed, the conversation on the twitter hashtag #tootoughtoteach was dominated by such voices. But first impressions are deceiving. Every school in the country can learn from Ian Mikardo.

That is not to say that every school in the country should aim to replicate it. That would be absurd. Central to the school's philosophy is to treat each student as an individual. Individuals' needs vary, and the needs of the Ian Mikardo pupils - all of whom 'have severe and complex social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and statements of special educational need' - are different to those of other schools. Other schools do not need, and probably cannot afford, to hire a Parent Engagement Officer and Child and an Adolescent Psychotherapist for just thirty-five students.

However, other aspects of the school are more transferable. For instance, all schools can draw lessons from Ian Mikardo's success in behaviour management. When they arrive, many of the students have already been excluded from other schools. All of them are vulnerable: they may have experienced domestic violence, they may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, and they may be involved in crime. But when they leave, the overwhelming majority go on to further education, training or employment, and none of them end up in custody. In many schools these outcomes would merit no comment but for a one with a student population like Ian Mikardo's they are truly remarkable.

More astonishing still, this success is achieved without rules, punishments or rewards. The school develops the students' confidence and communication skills so that they can properly and appropriately express their emotional needs. Then, when there is conflict, the teacher can help them to negotiate the situation in a way that meets the needs of everyone in the school. The result is that the students learn appropriate behaviour, not through fear of punishment, but through empathy with those around them.

(James McAsh works for the Phoenix Education Trust , which works to introduce a similar approach in all schools.)

When Claire Lillis, the current head teacher, took over the school thirteen years ago, it was in special measures and all the boys who walked through its doors ended up in prison. By contrast, in the past three years, 97% have gone on to further education, employment or training and in the past seven years not one has found his way into custody.


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