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Pressure to perform is causing havoc

A young headteacher I know has experienced more aggression in her short headship than I have in all of mine. She has had to cope with the murder of a dinner lady, an infant causing her permanent injury and a school bonfire night incident in which a child was hurt. Being young, she is still remarkably cheerful and resilient, but each of these events has reached the tabloids and fed the perception of increasing violence in schools, leading to a feeling of unease among those about to enter the profession.

All I have had to deal with is verbally aggressive parents, mothers with black eyes on their way to a refuge, and gangs of youths terrorising pensioners. No wonder that a quick straw poll of local deputy heads cites an unwillingness to deal with conflict as a reason for their not going on to headship.

Headline-grabbing events such as those above were not the only concerns of students I interviewed for teacher training places at the local university.

Their main worries were aggressive parents and misbehaving pupils. Were these factors increasing, and how could they cope? Without wanting to put them off, I had to admit that, in my experience, low-level aggression is increasing. Parents are quick to assert their rights, and to fiercely dispute any alleged misbehaviour by their child. Deference is dead. Gone are the days when, if a child told their parent a teacher had punished them for misbehaviour, the parent would double the punishment.

Children are under more pressure to perform academically and, though Charles Clarke seems unwilling to acknowledge a causal relationship between pressure and misbehaviour, teachers see it daily. In May, at a meeting in Tilbury, Essex, the Education Secretary called on schools to increase their efforts to combat poor behaviour. It is his belief that high achievement reinforces good behaviour and that good behaviour promotes high achievement. No teacher would argue with that, but the curriculum should be appropriate for each child, and some are less able to cope with the current emphasis on academic achievement.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has said that the restrictive nature of the national curriculum is responsible for poor behaviour. Since teaching is becoming less stimulating and motivational, it is not surprising that children are less well behaved.

Measures have been put in place to tackle poor behaviour, and pupil exclusions have fallen nationally for the first time in three years. But we would have fewer symptoms if we could embrace the worthy ideals of "enjoyment and excellence", with the emphasis on the former. We would still have to deal with the problems children bring in from home, but at least we would not be making a rod for our own backs.

Bob Aston

Bob Aston is head of a junior school in Kent

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