Our last posting was about schools (Farewell to Physics) so we thought we'd stay with the subject once more. This article by teacher and author Francis Gilbert first appeared in the Times at the beginning of this month …
Give me more powers and I'll stop my pupils fighting
Tony, a little boy in an oversized uniform, was trembling at the back of the playground. As I approached I could see why. He had fresh bruises on his face and little knife cuts on the back of his hand. At the far corner of the playground, I saw John, a large boy of 13 hovering, watching Tony and me closely. I asked Tony whether he was being picked on. His arm looked like someone had cut him with a knife. With a look of anxiety on his face, Tony denied this.
Wondering why John was hovering so circumspectly, I asked to look in his bag. He refused point-blank. I retreated, knowing that I didn't have the power to do anything. I decided to fill in a report to Tony's Year Head instead, voicing my suspicions. It was all I could do in the circumstances. A couple of hours later, John's father phoned to complain that I had been wanting to look through his "private possessions".
Thankfully, new powers that came into force just yesterday will give teachers like me the legal right to search pupils if they suspect they may have a weapon. Characters like John will no longer be able to bully kids with knives and get away with it, parents like his father will no longer be able to complain. Teachers will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that for once the Government has given them a little more power to impose order in our chaotic secondary schools.
The statistics show that many schools are frenzied places. A recent report by the schools' inspectorate reporting declining standards of behaviour in secondary schools - a third of lessons are ruined by poor behaviour.
Last year the police had to be called a number of times to avert riots at my local secondary school; one parent told me that her 15-year-old son carried a knife to school for self-defence. She, and many other parents like her throughout the country, are now grateful that the school has the power to search pupils thoroughly - with metal detectors - before they enter the premises. Finally, the school will become a safer place.
But how did we get into this sorry state where schools have to waste precious resources and time on simply checking that pupils are not carrying weapons? Ironically, the law has undoubtedly played a big role in the breakdown of order. With its focus upon children's rights, it appears to have thrown the pupil out with the bath water. Perhaps most significantly, corporal punishment was made illegal in 1986, with teachers being stripped of many other sanctions that they used to apply. For example, we can't detain a pupil for more than 20 minutes after school without giving 24 hours' written notice to a pupil's parent.
When I first started teaching in a tough comprehensive in the East End in the early 1990s, quite a few teachers would clip miscreants around the ear and expect them to behave. Generally, it worked because the pupils then weren't fully aware that they could get their teacher sacked for doing this. Being a naive young teacher, I used this technique on a few occasions but I came unstuck when a pupil complained. Luckily, the matter was sorted out amicably - but I have never so much as touched a pupil from that day onwards.
I know that this has been to the detriment of my pupils. In particular, I have never physically attempted to break up fights between pupils or get between them - what if the pupil accuses you of assaulting them rather than stopping the fight? In April this year the law changed and now allows teachers to "use reasonable force" when restraining pupils from fighting or misbehaving.
But the law remains murky: in particular, the Human Rights Act means that children can still sue or sack teachers if they feel their "privacy, dignity and physical integrity" has been compromised. One colleague of mine was suspended for a year before being reinstated after an allegation that he had hit a child while stopping a fight was proved to be false. Often headteachers and governing bodies take the side of the pupils if there are a number of pupils saying that you are in the wrong. It's not worth the hassle. You're far better off letting the pupils beat the hell out of each other than intervening.
Much of the time the teacher is not, however, the target of disruption: it's bullying and squabbling among a peer group that causes the worst problems, because disagreements can rumble on for weeks, months, years, erupting without warning in classrooms and playgrounds. The internet and mobile phones have aggravated the situation: now a nasty rumour, an embarrassing photo, a cutting remark can be spread around about a pupil within seconds and everyone knows about it. Within this climate, pupils seek revenge. Seven teenagers were murdered in London this year essentially over very trivial remarks: it appeared that they "dissed" or disrespected the wrong people.
The truth is that in huge schools teachers are overwhelmed by numbers. Pupil behaviour is much better in primary schools. This isn't simply because the children are younger, it's also because the schools are smaller and teachers are better able to form proper relationships with their pupils. A survey in April showed that temporary exclusions are running at nearly 10 per cent of pupils in secondary schools with more than 1,000 pupils, compared with 3 per cent in those with 1,000 or fewer children. We need to look at ways of making schools more "human-sized".
Simply giving teachers the legal right to search pupils for weapons isn't enough. We need to break up our larger schools into smaller, more manageable units. Above all, we must tighten the law even further so that teachers know they won't be sued or sacked if they physically stop fights or challenge misbehaviour that blights Britain's secondary schools.
The GOS would like to add one or two observations of his own, as he was a teacher once himself.
One false, ludicrous and deeply annoying cliché that has been around for years and simply won't go away even in the 21st Century is that private schools are better than state schools. Trust me, I've taught in both, and it ain't so.
There are good state schools and good private schools. There are bad state schools and there are bad private schools. The only difference is that some bad private schools can get away with providing a mediocre standard of education through mediocre teachers, simply because their class sizes are much smaller. In contrast, many state comprehensive schools are highly successful, overcoming staff shortages and dire financial limitations to provide a happy and effective education. I won't hear a word against the comprehensive schools my own children attended - they did an excellent job.
I taught for over thirty years, with reasonable success I think, in schools of different types all over the country. The worst behaviour I ever encountered in any school was in a fairly well-known private school - thankfully I was a visitor, not a teacher there. The best was in a city-centre state primary school, and a Scottish boys' private school, now sadly defunct.
The laziest children I ever encountered were in another, not very well-known, private school. Almost all children are lazy, whatever the school, but these really took the biscuit - they were actually proud of their lack of achievement, were constantly on the lookout for new ways of slacking, and made it very plain that nothing I might do would change their minds. This made them, to my mind, the most unpleasant children I ever attempted to teach. The most likeable were several junior classes in a seaside comprehensive where I did a term's supply teaching not so long ago to help out the Deputy Head, a friend. They didn't know much but they were happy to try new things, devoured everything you threw at them and really enjoyed their lessons. I don't think I had to raise my voice once that term.
So when I heard recently that there was a proposal that teachers from private schools should be drafted into local state schools to help the beleaguered staff there, my fury know no limits. Quite apart from their ability as teachers, don't people realise that many teachers in private schools aren't even qualified to teach? Private schools can employ pretty well who they like, but many of the people they choose wouldn't be allowed to work in a state school, where you need (a) a degree and (b) a teaching diploma or certificate gained from a college course in Education.
The idea that state schools have anything to learn from the private sector is just insulting - unless it's how to keep class-sizes down, which would go a hell of a long way to solving the discipline problems in many schools.
Here's a thought, though: we all know and accept that Tory politicians tend to be the products of private education. Fair enough - at least we know what we're getting. But Labour politicians? Once upon a time most of them came from unprivileged backgrounds and would walk to Westminster proudly wearing their cloth caps, but now? How many of the current crop went to state schools? How many of them really know what education is like for the majority of the population? Or care?
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
This site created and maintained by PlainSite