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Lippy pupils give Scots a headache

VERBAL ABUSE of teachers has escalated but other forms of indiscipline remain much the same. Findings from the most recent survey in 1996 show a similar pattern to an earlier one in 1990, with most problems caused by petty bad behaviour such as talking out of turn or eating in class.

The survey team at Moray House Institute of Edinburgh University say that physical violence against teachers remains rare, but warn that the rise in verbal abuse "represents a rather more serious trend towards challenging behaviour".

The views of 561 secondary teachers and 825 in primaries were surveyed three years ago and the results compared with the survey of 883 secondary teachers six years earlier. Pamela Munn, professor of curriculum research, said: "The same kinds of behaviours recur in almost the same order of frequency in both 1990 and 1996."

Twenty-seven per cent of secondary teachers reported general verbal abuse at least once a week in 1996 compared with 21 per cent in the previous survey. For primary teachers the 1996 finding was 8 per cent.

The most common offence in both primary and secondary and in both years was "talking out of turn". That was followed by "hindering other pupils". There was also considerable "calculated idleness or work avoidance".

Because a form of misbehaviour is common does not necessarily mean it is difficult to handle. Only 12 per cent of secondary teachers found it hard to deal with pupils who talked out of turn.

But teachers said that minor indiscipline was enervating. One primary teacher commented: "The daily repetition of sit still, listen, put that pencil down, keep your handsfeet to yourself, don't push, don't kick, why did you hit her? - it's all exhausting and wears the teacher down."

Half of the secondary teachers reported spending more time on discipline, perhaps a reflection of the "drip, drip effect" or of paper-based referral systems adding to the workload.

The survey also found that although pupil violence was rare, one in five primary teachers and three in 10 in secondary saw it as a problem. The report states: "At best this could lead to uncertainty and unease with teachers and non-aggressive pupils feeling under threat."

Teachers tended to characterise difficult pupils as boys of middling or below average ability, but their behaviour was no different from those of their peers, implying that the difference lay in the frequency of bad behaviour encountered rather than its seriousness.

Smaller classes were the most favoured answer to discipline problems, although there was also strong support for more places in special units outwith school for disruptive pupils. The survey team expresses concern that such units would be socially divisive and were "unlikely to be filled by pupils from the leafy suburbs".

The research by Pamela Munn, Margaret Johnstone and Stephen Sharp is reported in the Scottish Educational Review.

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