A few lessons from a conduct conundrum

9th March 2007 at 00:00
What is the correct, proportionate sanction for bad behaviour in school? Since the abolition of corporal punishment, teachers have struggled with forms of persuasion, exclusion and appeals to children's better nature. Or, in the case of an Italian teacher called Rosa Sciliberto, cutting through a seven-year-old boy's tongue with a pair of scissors in order to stop him talking.

Colleagues of Miss Sciliberto described her in The Times as "sweet and kind" with a special interest in disabled children. She just over-reacted.

Quite. I once heard a primary school teacher on the radio justifying his public-sector pension and holiday entitlement. He said that parents should remember what it is like to hold a children's party and then imagine doing it every single day. It was a knock-down argument. Teachers are not only expected to prevail over their migraine-inducing circumstances but must uphold higher standards than parents. They must regard children as endlessly endearing and interesting. They must never swear or use sarcasm.

And they must expect to be constantly judged: by the Government, the local authority, by the child, by the parent. If a child fails, then it is always the teacher's fault.

As a parent, my policy has always been to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. We are in this together. It saddens me that teachers cannot take this compact for granted. One of my sons went on a school trip to Italy when he was about 14. I received a call from his teacher, who had the manner of a hospice doctor. My poor son had broken away from the school party to befriend some street conjurers. Their magic was so advanced that they had persuaded him to part with all his money. It vanished, along with his new pals. Poor old Pinocchio was feeling very sorry for himself. "What an idiot," I said to the teacher, who demurred and begged me not to be hard on my boy. Actually, the teacher's private reaction to my son had been more human. "Why don't you just write, 'I am a c*** across your forehead?'" he suggested to him, despairingly.

Teachers have always used a special code for parents. What is worrying is that it has become fiendishly encrypted. Since self-esteem is more highly valued than self-improvement, no teacher dares show disappointment in a child. Chastising a pupil is no longer part of education. It is a legal and emotional minefield.

One teacher I know confiscated a girl's pop CD in a science lesson. The girl burst into tears and the class turned reproachfully on the teacher, who helplessly handed it back. In some sink schools, teachers are confiscating knives. If outraged pupils don't assault the teacher, their parents will.

I recently returned from visiting schools in East Africa where foreign aid provides the only food pupils have. A group of us shook our heads over impoverished lives but all noticed the same thing: children were full of life and mischief. The teachers had absolute authority without having to raise their voices. The authority came from respect: child for parent, parent for teacher, society for the value of education. If you appreciate something, you take care of it.

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