Blame not the teacher

There is a lot more to some pupils' poor behaviour than a lack of challenging lessons, writes Jenny Owl.

The throwaway remark is the most hurtful. In The TES on July 5, Peter Wilby was right to say that references to "bog-standard comprehensives" which ministers and their aides "would not touch with a bargepole" insult thousands of skilled and dedicated teachers. But we expect better from Her Majesty's chief inspector. In the same edition, David Bell quite rightly highlighted the importance of improving pupils' transfer from primary to secondary school, but over-simplified the causes of poor behaviour in Year 7.

He said there was a "clear link" between unsatisfactory teaching in Year 7 and pupils' poor behaviour and lack of interest. He went on: "It only reinforces the point that for pupils at risk of exclusion, discontinuity between primary and secondary can be the final straw. And bluntly, one of the key reasons for the low level of challenge in such classes was the lack of knowledge by the teachers of what their pupils knew and could do."

There we have it. Pupils behave badly because their secondary teachers do not challenge them sufficiently. Yet invert the opening sentence of his paragraph and a different picture emerges: there is a clear link between poor behaviour and unsatisfactory teaching, with the former contributing to the latter. (There is also a link between poor behaviour and deprivation, and between underachievement and a teacher recruitment crisis.) In the most difficult inner-city school I ever worked in, I failed to teach effectively a Year 7 class that included Nick. Nick was disturbed and would sing defiantly when teachers asked him to do anything. He would jump on to tables during lessons, and verbally abuse staff. There was considerable competition for places in this school's behavioural improvement unit. But Nick was considered beyond the improvement capabilities of the unit, so the school's inclusion policy - a government initiative - left him to disrupt the day as he pleased.

David Bell's oversimplification about poor behaviour ensuing from insufficiently challenging teaching implies that if only teachers did x, y and * , behavioural problems would vanish. I thought I was the failure because my ignorance of x, y and * prevented me from helping Nick - until I met teachers from his primary school. I was relieved to learn that his behaviour had always been difficult and that no teacher had managed to forge a sustained, good relationship with him. While Nick's case is extreme, many schools have a disproportionate number of children with such problems.

Constantly challenging children to think is crucial, but the chief inspector of schools, of all people, should recognise that many complex factors are at play in the classroom. At least Tony Blair has had the good sense to highlight the need to address behavioural issues without laying the entire blame at teachers' failure to challenge pupils sufficiently (The TES, July 5) - not yet, anyhow. But given governments' propensity to pass the buck, and the ammunition so effortlessly supplied by David Bell, I fear it is only a matter of time before Tony Blair jumps aboard the "It's all your fault, teachers" bandwagon.

Jenny Owl is a head of department in the north of England. She writes under a pseudonym

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