There’s a clue the moment that you walk into Stephen Drew’s office that you’re dealing with an unusual breed of headteacher. Opposite the door, leaning against a filing cabinet, is a pile of litter pickers. These litter pickers are standard issue to every member of Mr Drew’s staff – including himself.
Mr Drew – an inspirational teacher who came to prominence on Channel 4’s Educating Essex in 2011 – doesn’t spend his lunch hour eating, or in meetings. Instead, every day he’s out cleaning up the playground. When was the last time?
What did you pick up? “Probably about 200 pieces of litter.”
Doesn’t the headteacher of a school with 1,400 pupils have more valuable things to do with his time? Drew is aghast: “I’m out with the children setting a good example! What could be more valuable than that?”
A few things have changed since we first encountered Mr Drew, as he is universally known. For a start, he’s now a head (he was a deputy in 2011). Eighteen months ago, he was brought in as a new broom at a school 20 miles down the road from Passmores, where Educating Essex was filmed. The new place, a comprehensive that was once a girls’ grammar school, had languished with a “satisfactory” (ie not good enough) rating from the school watchdog Ofsted for nearly a decade. In January this year, the inspectors returned. Brentwood County High School is now officially “good” – and Drew is “very proud”. (Though “good” isn’t good enough for Drew. He’s aiming for “outstanding”.)
Drew is now back on telly – but not teaching in his own school. This time, Channel 4 has set him loose on a group of troubled primary-aged kids, many of whom are on the brink of permanent exclusion. Drew and a group of specialist teachers have set up a four-week summer school to see if they can turn the children’s lives around. There’s another key difference: this time, the children’s parents come to school too. Because most of the mums and dads readily admit that they’ve lost control of their offspring.
These are kids that you probably wouldn’t want anywhere near you – and certainly not next to your children in the classroom or playground.
They kick, they scream, they swear. They refuse to listen or to learn. And their parents don’t know what to do with them.
Yet there are occasional glimpses that show you why they are as they are. These children appear scared of the way life has turned out. And kicking up a fuss is how they show their fear. Drew, through a mixture of quiet determination and sympathy, tries to rescue them from a life that otherwise seems destined for disaster.
There are, I say, probably a few parents watching who’ll be asking: why should we waste time forcing an education on an out-of-control kid who doesn’t want to learn?
“Brilliant!” he retorts. “You’re going to tell a nine-year-old that you give up on them, that they’re so appallingly behaved that you don’t care about them any more. If you say ‘He’s nine years old, he’s so ghastly he deserves nothing’, then keep working hard so you can pay all of his benefit cheques and his prison fees. It’s ridiculous. I don’t get why people think that’s the solution to the problem.”
Drew, 41, has an almost blanket aversion to expulsion. In his career he’s only ever kicked out one pupil – and that was because the boy’s parents insisted. He says children who behave badly may well need to be removed from their class for a time – so as not to damage their peers’ chances – but not from the school altogether.
It’s not that Drew doesn’t believe in punishment, merely that discipline needs to be constructive. So what does he make of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s recent call for a return to “tried and tested punishments” such as writing lines?
“What is this? The 1920s? Ridiculous,” says Drew. “Mr Gove’s fundamental problem is that he doesn’t understand the reality of an education for millions of children run as a state service.”
Gove needs to stop trying to force-feed children with “facts” at the expense of all else, argues Drew, and should abandon the idea that “somehow education at some unspecified point in the past, be it the 50s, 60s or 70s, was a golden age.
“It wasn’t. It is a myth to suggest that standards of literacy and numeracy are poorer today than they were in the past. But the more we in the teaching profession insult Mr Gove, the more he likes it, he thinks it’s a badge of honour.”
And yet… you can’t help thinking that Gove would love the idea of a headteacher who stalks the playground in search of miscreant children and misplaced sweet wrappers.
DETENTION IS GOOD But make it productive: students pick litter, clean graffiti, stack chairs and tables.
SET AN EXAMPLE I pick up litter and when students dug out a planter in detention, me and two members of staff worked with them, digging and moving wheelbarrows.
DON’T GIVE LINES All our community service tasks have an end product which is of use.
PE IS NOT A PUNISHMENT We don’t make students run around a field as Mr Gove suggests — that would undermine the enjoyment that comes from PE.