Burdened with disrespect

4th June 2004 at 01:00
The latest union conferences have highlighted once again the problems of violence and disruption in the classroom, but is there really a rising tide of indiscipline in our schools? Raymond Ross reports

If the Scottish Executive knows it has to tackle yob culture among 18-year-olds, why can't it see the need to start tackling it in schools? This is the view expressed by one teachers' union leader, but it sums up the feelings of many teachers around the country.

Two weeks ago a National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers survey in Scotland revealed that one in five teachers suffered physical assaults and six out of 10 thought their school discipline policies didn't work. The survey was based on 600 responses from its members across the nursery, primary and secondary sectors.

The same week, Dundee City Council announced that security wardens are to be introduced into four of its secondaries (Baldragon Academy, Braeview Academy, Craigie High and Harris Academy) to assist teachers with pupils'

challenging and disruptive behaviour. Teachers needed help to retain control, said director of education Anne Wilson.

In March, school inspectors found some pupils at Braeview Academy did not feel safe and asked the school to deal more effectively with challenging behaviour.

In Aberdeen, just a few weeks ago, Kincorth Academy was forced to shut its doors early after 30 teenage girls from the school and Northfield Academy clashed at lunchtime in the school's playground, with trouble spilling into the corridors. The school already had been identified by an inspectors'

report last year as having problems with pupil behaviour.

At Buckhaven High in Fife, inspectors found important weaknesses in the school's relationships, with teachers' expectations of pupils' behaviour inconsistent.

And there are other schools across the country with problems.

"There is a yob culture, but it doesn't start at 18. It starts as early as 11 or 12," says Jim Docherty, assistant secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, which debated the problems at its conference in Dundee last month.

The union called on the Scottish Executive to extend its campaign against anti-social behaviour in the community to include pupil behaviour in classrooms. Its members firmly believed that most secondary pupils'

attainment levels will suffer because of increased disruption by a minority.

"If the Executive knows it has to tackle yob culture among 18-year-olds, why can't it see the need to begin tackling it in our schools?," says Mr Docherty. "We need early intervention."

The Executive disputes the NASUWT figures and claims the Framework for Intervention initiative it hopes to roll out across the country will help to tackle disruptive behaviour.

"Our figures show that on average each school reports less than two incidents of serious anti-social or violent behaviour each year, but these two incidents are two too many," says a spokesperson.

"It's important not to scaremonger. Our schools are not battlegrounds. The majority of pupils are well-behaved and the majority of teachers are not assaulted at work."

In January, it was announced pound;500,000 will be allocated to help councils across Scotland participate in the Framework for Intervention initiative and train teachers as behaviour co-ordinators. "This support should help tackle disruptive behaviour in the classroom," the spokesperson says.

Education Minister Peter Peacock last year commissioned a review, headed by Pamela Munn, dean of education at Edinburgh University, to provide a clearer picture of discipline in schools. Professor Munn is due to report to the Executive at the end of October and says it is too early to comment on her findings to date.

"It can be misleading to look at one set of statistics in isolation," she says. "We need a full picture of attainment, attendance and exclusion. We need to see the classroom experience in the round.

"There's certainly a perception among people I both teach and meet at conferences that there is a problem of indiscipline, but it's always very suspect to go on anecdotal evidence. Also, different people will define indiscipline in different ways."

HM Inspectorate of Education hopes to publish a follow-up to the Better Behaviour, Better Learning report in September, along with its second briefing newsletter on discipline, monitoring authorities which are implementing the Framework for Intervention initiative, such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The teacher unions, however, are adamant that indiscipline is on the rise and the rise is linked to national social inclusion policies.

"Social inclusion is the main cause of indiscipline rising, in terms of both numbers of cases and their severity," says Mr Doherty. "It is being used as a mantra to explain the presence of certain young people in mainstream classes where they shouldn't be. These young people cannot be accommodated in mainstream schools other than perhaps in special units attached to them."

Victor Topping, the NASUWT national executive member for Scotland, says "School exclusions for physical abuse of a staff member have almost doubled since 1998 and this is definitely related to social inclusion policies.

"According to Scottish Executive statistics, there were just over 800 such exclusions in 1998. The number for 200304 was 1,506. The Executive can question our survey results as much as they want but they can't argue with their own data."

The Educational Institute of Scotland supports the principles of social inclusion but does not support the inclusion of pupils who have displayed violent behaviour in the past in mainstream classes. At next week's general meeting, several motions will address social inclusion and its impact on the health and safety of pupils and teachers.

An EIS spokesperson says: "Indiscipline is a growing problem in schools and it is important that proper measures are put in place to ensure appropriate pupil behaviour and provide an appropriate atmosphere for teaching and learning.

"Pupil indiscipline is one of the main concerns for teachers and it is incumbent on the Scottish Executive and local authorities to tackle this problem in order to allow teachers and pupils to work in a safe and secure environment. Year on year rises in the reported numbers of assaults on teachers show that much more has to be done to address the problem.

"Headteachers must retain the option to exclude disruptive pupils and there should be no place in mainstream classes for pupils who have shown they are predisposed to violence. We owe it to the majority of well-behaved pupils to provide the best possible environment for their learning," he says.

Whether or not things are getting worse, no one denies there have been appalling instances of indiscipline, with urban areas the most obvious hot spots. Glasgow regularly tops the tables for exclusion rates, which may not be surprising as many of its schools are dealing with social disadvantage.

But does relating indiscipline to social disadvantage mean it can be related unequivocally to social inclusion? That is debatable. Executive statistics show that the number of young people in residential behaviour schools has not changed much, which could contradict the idea that they are being forced back into mainstream.

Nor is it clear that the number of pupils being taken out of mainstream has diminished, though local authorities are less tolerant of pupils being excluded and not going anywhere.

Many welcome the Framework for Intervention for trying to offer the necessary support in class and some welcome Professor Munn's forthcoming report as independent. Others are more sceptical, regarding her as the "advocate of social inclusion" (TES Scotland letters, February 27). In any event, it should throw up valuable data.

One problem with the annual statistics on violent incidents published by the Executive is that they are self-reported.

Professor Munn declares neutrality on the the effects of social inclusion on indiscipline, saying: "If the level of indiscipline is rising, it seems that patterns of attainment at SCE levels are also rising."

The fact remains that when discipline goes off the rails it can go off badly. Also, schools frequently feel they are left to clean up society's mess. Teachers do not have the automatic respect in the community which they used to command. Parents do not automatically back the school and some undoubtedly allow their children to challenge the system.

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