Don't make excuses for miscreants

21st November 2008 at 00:00

Andrew is 11, and he left us last summer. His early years were dreadful: abused physically and sexually by his parents and bullied mercilessly by an older brother, he was taken into care, then adopted by a couple living near our school - which is how he came to us. His emotional instability meant it took months for him to settle or relate to other children, let alone do any work.

Nevertheless, with determined help from our special educational needs co-ordinator, and tireless support from his adoptive parents, he made rapid progress. By the time he had reached Year 6, he was a reasonably happy and contented child. We felt he could move to secondary school with confidence.

His parents had chosen his next school carefully because he still had a statement of special needs and would require much additional help. The school they selected certainly had its publicity angle sorted out. Andrew was promised the earth. The special needs department ran like an oiled machine, they said, and Andrew would receive his full entitlement from dedicated specialist teachers.

The reality was rather different. From the moment he joined the school, Andrew was constantly bullied by three other Year 7 children. Money was demanded. To celebrate his birthday, they beat him up.

He received none of his special needs hours, and when his parents went in to find out what was going on, the special needs co-ordinator couldn't even make his laptop work, let alone offer an explanation.

The situation deteriorated rapidly. Andrew suffered constant nightmares and couldn't sleep unless a parent was lying beside him. Meantime, it seemed the school had simply given up, saying it wasn't possible to protect him from bullying without "firm evidence" in writing because the bullies' parents would object if accusations were made without proof. Presumably Andrew should have carried a camera and taken a few snaps while he was being beaten up.

What particularly angers me is the age of the bullies: barely 12 years old, they were apparently renowned for their appalling behaviour at primary school.

Of course, Andrew's case is hardly unique, but can we really not try a little harder to give our children decent values when they are very young?

We use every excuse under the sun for the bullies: they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; they're "reluctant learners"; they have rotten home lives; they need counselling; they're too young to be held responsible for their actions - anything to excuse what they are doing.

We pander to poor behaviour, we spend lots of money on behavioural therapists, and we use fashionable techniques such as Circle Time to give miscreants an opportunity to unload their angst. And, of course, we have piles of written policies. It doesn't seem to solve much though, does it?

I don't claim to have more answers than anyone else, but my school - a difficult inner-city primary - does get something right. In all three of our Ofsted reports, inspectors have commented on the very high standard of behaviour. Good teaching and a high-quality learning environment work wonders, but I suspect it is the enormous effort we put into the early years that makes such a difference.

Like any sensible parent, we simply refuse to tolerate any unsociable or aggressive behaviour from the moment children join us. We allow no excuses for it, and we make extremely clear boundaries for children when they are very small. It is hardly nuclear physics, and it works.

It really is our duty to get children's values sorted out long before they reach secondary school. If we don't, what chance do children like Andrew stand?

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London;

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