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Testing adult authority

The UK government wants to turn teachers into shock troops against kids' bad behaviour. Not surprisingly, teachers aren't too keen.

David Perks

Topics Politics

The attempt to reinstate teachers’ authority in the classroom and instil a culture of respect among young people by allowing teachers to remove children’s iPods seems doomed to failure before it starts. Few teachers seem to want the powers that Tony Blair keeps foisting upon them. Of course, a few newspaper journalists will jump on the bandwagon, calling on the government to get tough on unruly kids, but somehow those with the responsibility for actually caring for young people don’t seem very keen to do so.

Schools minister Jacqui Smith announced that the government’s new legislation ‘will allow schools to punish pupils for unacceptable behaviour on the way to and from school…and ensure pupils are positive ambassadors for schools’. But the prospect of teachers confronting pupils on trains and buses doesn’t seem to have caught the public imagination. It certainly does not seem very popular in the staffroom. As one colleague of mine put it, ‘I am not confronting anyone’. There seems to be a mismatch between the government’s desire for a respectful society and the practicality of instilling authority.

Just stamping your feet and declaring that you should be heard only makes your words jar awkwardly. Smith’s insistence that ‘A culture of disrespect will not be tolerated’ might be a reasonable demand, but it rings hollow in a society that doesn’t seem to have the stomach for a fight to reassert adults’ authority.

The unions, long champions of the fight against unruly pupils, have gone strangely quiet over the government’s agenda. The National Association of Schoolmasters / Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) even suggested that behaviour had already improved on the basis that fewer of its members had declared strikes against teaching unruly pupils. That might just mean teachers are getting on with their job rather than running shy of naughty children.

Nevertheless, the reluctance to jump up and declare support for the government’s ‘respect’ agenda was echoed in a feeble endorsement for the proposed new powers by the Association of School and College Leaders. A survey of its members revealed that only 13 out of 100 thought the measures would significantly improve behaviour. Teachers I have spoken to think the government is raving mad. Ministers seem to expect schools to pick up the pieces in a society that seems to be paralysed to act when it comes to children. The lack of enthusiasm among head teachers for random drugs testing introduced previously by the government seems to bear that sentiment out.

Even suggesting that teachers need a law to allow them to confiscate pupil’s possessions in lessons belies the frailty of adults’ authority. Surely any teacher worth their salt would just take the offending object and be done with it. Where is the need for the law to intervene? It can only be because teachers fear the consequences of taking action against a child that the government is pressurised into acting. As Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), put it, ‘Teachers need to be absolutely confident about their authority’. Presumably Sinnott makes this point because teachers singularly lack confidence in their own authority. The problem is, passing a law like this will not shift the balance back in adults’ favour.

Of course, if we invite police patrols into the corridors to enforce teachers’ demands it might start to impact upon behaviour. But I don’t think we have quite got to that stage yet, even in Tony Blair’s mind. However, the amount of police patrolling the school gates at the end of the day might tell a different story. It seems that the journey home has become a major political battleground against unruly children. You might be forgiven for thinking it was best to stay indoors at 3.30pm, as hordes of teenagers wearing overly large knotted ties and garish uniforms menace the streets. In fact, you can see why the government is so keen to ban mobile phones and iPods in schools if you consider that the police claim that possessing such items invites street crime.

Of course it is unfortunate that some kids have their possessions nicked, especially when those possessions cost their parents hundreds of pounds. But children having a go at each other at the end of the day is a normal fact of life. Running the gauntlet of the older children is a ritual and part of school. The fact that this now mimics adult crime and that it happens only a stone’s throw from the school gates just confirms that youngsters are pretty sure adults won’t do anything to intervene. Banning mobile phones and iPods is at base an admission that adults can’t do anything to protect young people from each other.

The idea that as a teacher you will patrol buses and tube trains in an attempt to enforce better behaviour on the way home strikes me as absurd. Adults have given up on mass from disciplining youngsters, so it is a bit much to expect teachers to do it for us. Only a week ago it was reported that a teacher claimed damages from Birmingham council after a stranger confronted her in her own classroom. She won the case out of court, with a £330,000 settlement. She had not set foot in her classroom for five years, claiming she was traumatised. The response of the council was to say that it would tighten up on risk assessment procedures to protect its staff. But if teachers are reluctant to face the relatives of their charges in the classroom then how on earth are they going to face up to youngsters in public?

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Topics Politics

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