'A golden age? Palpable nonsense'

6th November 2009 at 00:00

When your school's neighbours complain that pupils are vandalising their property, it's worth paying them a visit to find out what's happened.

In 1996, during my first year as head of a comprehensive, I received a phone call from an elderly couple in their late 70s and early 80s. They were upset that students had been throwing things at their house, so one afternoon I went round for a cup of tea.

They gave me a lovely welcome and then the full Queen Mum tour of the property, including showing me where the kids smoked round the back and a place where pupils could easily jump the fence to escape school during lesson time (this type of useful intelligence can only be gained from visits).

They then presented me with the tree branch that had been thrown at their conservatory - a short one that you might throw for a dog to chase.

The couple confessed that they had not seen it thrown and it had not broken the glass, though it could have done. After lengthy debate, I agreed to put Marcus, one of the school's roving senior leaders, on duty in the spot for a few days to keep an eye on projectile delivery.

It was then that the husband began expounding about the "trouble with kids today". I had been expecting this, but was surprised when he was interrupted by his wife's laughter.

She explained that her husband had been to the same school himself, and had been sent home one day for throwing stones at neighbours' houses and had climbed the fence to get away from a teacher in pursuit.

He agreed he was a bit of a tearaway and reluctantly agreed with me that these kids were not that different, though these days neighbours were more likely to phone the police than the school.

The idea that the "kids today" are somehow vastly more violent and prone to misbehaviour than in the past is simply a myth.

That is not to say that schools, including the ones I have worked in, do not face significant behaviour challenges. Nor is it to claim that violent pupils do not exist.

But the idea that there was a golden age in which teachers had complete control, and pupils were never involved in scraps is palpable nonsense.

I used to get into fights in the 1960s and 1970s - and I went to a nice grammar school in Surrey. These kinds of events seemed to take place on a regular basis, and there were threats of knives, broken bottles waved at weekend parties, the Hells Angels turning up at the school gates, and so on.

Although I got my first headship at the young age of 35, by the time my elder children passed through university I suddenly realised that I was older than most of the parents who came into school to talk to me.

And when they said, as they so often did, "In my day, Mr Averre-Beeson, this would not have happened," I was able to start replying that "my day" was before "their day", and it certainly happened to me.

Trevor Averre-Beeson is a former head of three London schools and is now director of Lilac Sky Schools. www.lilacskyschools.co.uk.

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