What appals us initially can become normalised over time if we are exposed enough and our leaders show no reaction. This is especially true when there is motive attached to a mission such as improving life chances for the disadvantaged. Phrases such as ‘kill with kindness’, ‘tough love’ and ‘it’s for your own good’ purport to show care by ensuring short term suffering because ‘it will be better for them in the long run’.
Recently there has been some shocking allegations highlighted in a head teachers’ blog post about an operation called ‘flattening the grass’. It is clear this phrase exists but what it means less so. Witnesses claim it is a policy encouraging ritual humiliation of random children to ensure other pupils witness it. This then renders the onlookers so terrified that they will fall in line. The descriptions of assemblies where this is alleged to have happened sound like an army camp with sergeant majors yelling in students’ faces. The desired result is that the child will cry and the grass is therefore flattened.
Supporters of the MAT claim it’s just a phrase for taking over struggling schools and the term encompasses the orientation of new behaviour systems and staff redundancies for those who are not onboard with the MAT’s vision.
If the former is true (and more witnesses are coming forward daily and journalists from the TES and Schools Week are reporting in a balanced and ethical way) I wonder if ‘flattening the grass’ in its original form was similar to a ‘don’t smile before Christmas’. Did it then become more severe as a toxic mix of pressure to turn around a school and staff becoming desensitised to the approach took hold? This can happen when institutions grow and maybe ‘strict’ became ‘cruel’ over time. Did organisations such the RSC, OFSTED and the DfE turn a blind eye to such rogue practice as they saw successful outcomes and preferred not to question too deeply how the miraculous change occurred? Even teachers like myself hearing about ‘flattening the grass’ might feel initial guilt. We have all behaved poorly on occasions and shouted haven’t we? Except this isn’t a teacher ‘losing it’, if true, flattening the grass was premeditated and systematic, a culture allowed to grow which purposely picked on children to make them cry as a deterrent to others.
The worst thing about this incident is the response from the DfE and OFSTED. They have given state sanctioned support for these MATs to continue behaving as they do by showing no concern. Neither said ‘we will investigate these serious allegations’, but supported the schools saying that parents who’d responded on the internet seemed happy. If ever there was a shrug of indifference it was then. Furthermore, they stated that MATs must have autonomy to choose their own behaviour policies. Such a response from the two state funded organisations there to protect children and ensure the highest ethical standards is in my opinion not good enough. Damian Hinds has normalised such behaviour and become complicit in this alleged unethical (and possibly abusive) practice.
Is this really what we have become? Horror stories which are reported in two respected education newspapers, with witness statements, not only ignored but defended by the state? Not even a ‘we are concerned’? Luckily there are others taking these accusations more seriously with the Chair of the Education Committee calling for some answers.
The schools accused have successful results but at what cost? School improvement is a mirage if a system can only succeed using cruel and inhumane practice.
We’re seeing a bleak educational landscape if this is condoned and as with easy exclusions and elite comprehensives, it is not fair on the schools who don’t cheat the system. We cannot stop being shocked by these stories and we must continue to champion and reward the schools getting it right ethically – we need moral MATs not flattening the grass.