Group Think

The blind leading the blind………..

The grass flattening takes my mind back nearly twenty years ago when I was on the Deputy head interview treadmill. At one gruelling interview process lasting three days (including an evening meeting the Governors, who appeared to be the Tory Party at play in deepest Surrey. The point of this bit seemed to be to see whether you could hold a plate of canapes, a glass of dry white wine and still engage in small talk about property prices and skiing holidays) I found myself in a group of five candidates sitting in a circle. There was an outer circle, accommodating members of the panel with clipboards, frantically scribbling notes as we all strutted our stuff. We were meant to be members of the Senior Leadership group and, at intervals, we were given a little slip of paper with a hot educational topic on it. Each candidate took it in turns to introduce and chair the discussion of the topic.

All was going well until a new topic was introduced. To combat vandalism and poor behaviour in the toilets, the school was going to introduce CCTV cameras inside the toilets and the cubicles. Three of the candidates fell over themselves in their eagerness to demonstrate their toughness. Nothing would stand in their way of stamping out bad behaviour. Their proposals got wilder and wilder as they tried to trump each other’s hardman credentials. I felt increasingly uncomfortable as this authoritarian auction proceeded, but shamefully, I kept my counsel. But then, the fifth candidate, a young woman who had been under the radar until this point, interjected and gently pointed out that perhaps the issue of privacy had not been given a proper airing. Silence filled the room and a look of horror spread across the faces as they all realised that they had just made themselves look rather foolish. It would be lovely to report that the young woman got the job, but I’m afraid this story does not have a fairytale ending, not even for me. One of the brutalist, authoritarian, sharp suited chaps got it, despite not having uttered a word of sense nor imagination throughout the three days. I’m pretty sure that he would have been first in the queue for grass flattening had it been around back in the day. He’s probably advising them on it now.

“Flattening the grass” and the ethics of behaviour management

It sounds like the sort of thing the servants might have been tasked to do before a nice picnic on the lawn in gentler times, but the metaphor conceals a more sinister practice. In the last week, allegations have emerged of Academy Chains using this tactic to establish new zero tolerance regimes in recently taken over schools. John Tomsett, Headteacher of Huntingdon school in York, posted, “ Later in the week I heard of a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called “flattening the grass” rolling assemblies. Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour. Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry. If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner. The students are the “grass” which is “flattened” by the experience.” https://johntomsett.com/2019/02/03/this-much-i-know-about-behaviour-management-flattening-the-grass-and-mary-myatt/

This allegation, condemned for a while on Twitter until it all went quiet, has resurfaced in Schools Week in an article by John Dickens which accuses The Outward Grange Trust and the Delta Academies Trust, both of which run many schools in the north of England, of routinely adopting these practices. The article quotes unnamed employees of the OGAT trust and the allegations are backed up by testimony from parents and students. When the TES asked OGAT to respond to the allegations they were not denied and subsequently they have employed a “political and media relations firm”, Abzed, to handle the fallout.

What madness is this? How have we got to this point? The response to these allegations by critics thus far has been wholly inadequate: mild, tentative and questioning. A raised eyebrow rather than a full-throated roar of condemnation. “Flattening” students until they cry? This is a practice with more in common with psychological torture and interrogation techniques than with school behaviour management. They are children for goodness sake, children for whom the organisations in question have a duty of care. I’m sure that every member of staff in these schools wears their ID lanyard (too fearful of being “flattened” themselves, no doubt) and they have been granted the Ofsted tick for safeguarding. But I have no doubt that the pupils at these schools are far from being “safe”.

The real tragedy here is that we have constructed a culture where this is no longer remarkable. The smack of firm leadership is de rigeur these days. The “I make no apologies for insisting on the highest standards” brigade have been allowed to chip away at civilized norms of institutional practice so that just about anything goes. The end justifies the means it seems and anyone who challenges that is dismissed as a bleeding -heart liberal. And so these ghastly practices spread slowly and insidiously until the fabric of the system is riddled with them.

It has to stop. Now. There needs to be an immediate official enquiry and a statement from the DfE condemning these practices in the strongest possible terms.