Leading from the front

Challenging. Difficult. Has anger management issues. Needs handling with patience. Finds it difficult to settle. Argumentative. Physically demanding.

These are words and phrases that schools use when talking about children who are a problem in class. Notice they are never labelled as disobedient or badly behaved.

I was a challenging child at secondary school, but I felt I had a legitimate reason. Most of my teachers were old and tired, they didn't like children much and few bothered to create interesting lessons. My French teacher sat on her desk filing her nails while she delivered lists of French verbs to us, my maths master sneered at any child who couldn't keep up, and my geography teacher was so boring that I fell asleep in his lesson one hot summer afternoon. So I tended to muck about. Nothing major - although my parents would have been furious - but enough to let teachers know they were messing with the education I had a right to.

Of course, things have changed dramatically. Now, most teachers go out of their way to deliver exciting and stimulating lessons, but the dreadful behaviour and abuse they are subjected to from a minority of young people has to be seen to be believed. Watching programmes such as Educating the East End makes me wonder when we decided that teachers should be required to tolerate vile language, deliberate and aggressive classroom disruption, and occasionally serious physical abuse simply because a child has "anger management issues".

Yes, I am aware that ever-increasing numbers of children have stressful home lives and suffer from broken parental relationships, the manipulations of modern social media, access to undesirable internet material and raging hormones. But school should be a place of harmony and safety, both for pupils and those who teach them. Is it any wonder that so many teachers leave the profession after a few years? Speak to any young teacher and they will say they expect to be challenged daily by their pupils. Many despair of finding ways to deal with it.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, recently stated that pupils were being failed by teachers who could not keep control. He also said it was the job of a headteacher to provide strong leadership on disciplinary matters, and he was right. But far too many headteachers and senior managers deliberately squirrel themselves away in their offices. Low-level disruptive behaviour needs to be dealt with firmly and quickly, and teachers need to know they have the support of their headteacher. Ignore the problem and it very quickly spirals into an epidemic.

I recently read a book by a teacher who gave up his comfy job at a grammar school and travelled the country supply teaching in inner-city schools. One such institution was a haven of calm. Why? Because the wise and experienced headteacher, much loved by staff and children and an inspirational teacher, was constantly visible. Problems were addressed immediately and poor behaviour was rare. Headteacher: the clue's in the name.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email: mikejkent@aol.com

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