Last week science teacher Peter Harvey was acquitted of attempted murder after he attacked a pupil with a dumbbell. The 50-year-old snapped after suffering years of student abuse of a kind that many teachers would recognise. "There but for the grace of God, go I ..." many surely muttered to themselves. Immediately after the case, the number of calls to helplines from distressed teachers rocketed (page 9). It added to the perception, fuelled by some in the press, that classrooms were scenes of chaos and teachers had lost control.
Evidence that bad behaviour is on the rise is not hard to find. Various union surveys in the past few years have found that a third of teachers have been attacked by pupils and that only one in ten assaults was accurately reported to local authorities. In the first leaders' TV debate last month, David Cameron brandished the appalling statistic that 17,000 teachers had been attacked by pupils in a year.
Such data paint a truly alarming picture but they come with health warnings. Teacher surveys can be skewed because they attract responses from the worst affected while Mr Cameron's figure lumped relatively minor incidents together with serious assaults and included multiple infractions by the same individuals. Moreover, they are directly contradicted by other findings.
Figures from Ofsted suggest that behaviour in schools has never been better, with inspectors judging it inadequate in only 1 per cent of primary and 2 per cent of secondary schools. Other recent polls show that the vast majority of teachers - 94 per cent - thought behaviour in their schools was acceptable, good or excellent, while 85 per cent of parents agreed. The highly respected British Crime Survey found that in the decade after 1994, violent assaults on teachers declined by 40 per cent and verbal attacks fell by 30 per cent.
At the heart of this statistical discrepancy is a qualitative muddle. "Bad behaviour" is too broad a term and includes everything from low-level disruption and cheeky backchat to mental intimidation, verbal assaults and actual bodily harm. What can seem threatening to one teacher can be shrugged off by another. And what is deemed acceptable behaviour changes over time, even if the concerns remain constant. In 1927 The TES ran an article headlined "Are children wickeder?" The question resurfaced in various guises every six months or so for the next 80 years without arriving at an answer.
The pressures Mr Harvey endured were appalling; the consequences tragic. But to draw hard lessons from his case, while tempting, is misguided. The taunts, insults and petty humiliations that contributed to his plight will be familiar to many teachers. Mercifully, the way in which events unfolded will not be. Incidents like the one in Mansfield are rare and deserve our sympathy. But they should not be used to make erroneous and sweeping judgments about the state of our schools or to fashion inappropriate policies to tackle inflated problems. Outrage, after all, obscures far more than it illuminates.
Editor E firstname.lastname@example.org.