Heads report increase in behavioural problems as recession tightens its grip

10th April 2009 at 01:00
Unemployment and tensions at home spill over into school

Teachers are reporting a deterioration in pupil behaviour as a knock-on effect of the recession and say they are having to find ways to help children who are emotionally scarred by home problems sparked by the economic downturn.

Headteachers told The TES they have noticed a change in mood in the classroom. One primary head, who asked not to be identified, said the closure of a major local business and parents' loss of jobs had upset many of the children and led some to call Childline.

"It feels like there is a tension from parents which has manifested in children. It's been simmering over the past few months," she said.

"There have been spats of behaviour issues and we have then found out the parents of the children involved had lost their jobs.

"We had a case of domestic violence reported to us recently. It came to light because the child, who was 12 and the older sister of one of our pupils, had phoned the police. The man in question had lost his job.

"Another little boy who was bright and breezy suddenly became withdrawn and much more serious."

The head said that the difference between now and the last recession is that Every Child Matters has made it more important for teachers to be aware of pupils' emotions.

"In a primary school we notice changes in mood, but I worry that might not be picked up in secondary schools," she said.

Children at Cannington Primary near Bridgwater in Somerset have been affected by more than 100 job losses at the Yeo Valley dairy factory. Teachers have seen a few tearful and anxious children and later found out their fathers have been made redundant.

Jan Hossent, the head, says the impact of the recession on schools was "one to watch".

"I think people are reluctant to talk about it, but as the recession goes on we might see an increase in numbers wanting free school meals, which might give us an indication of what's going on," she said.

"Another thing we have noticed is how much pupils are talking about the economic situation, especially those who are older.

"They are using terms like credit crunch and recession, which they've obviously heard through the media."

The apparent increase in poor behaviour - a key topic at some teachers' union conferences this year - was predicted by Jim Knight, the schools minister. He warned heads in December that the stresses of redundancy would "start to be reflected in behaviour in schools", if they had not already.

A poll of more than 1,000 teachers and support staff by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that pupil behaviour has deteriorated over the past two years, with violence towards school staff now commonplace.

More than 40 per cent of respondents said that student behaviour had worsened over the past two years and 58 per cent said it had worsened over the past five years.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, said the economy was clearly not the only explanation for poor behaviour. She believes pupils arriving at school without the necessary verbal and social skills are among the causes.

A previous poll by the union indicated that television was partly to blame, with 86 per cent saying programmes such as Little Britain were contributing to poor behaviour.

Dr Bousted said that while many children had television sets and computers in their rooms, they were not being set a good example of how to behave by their parents.

"Parents have a real responsibility here," she said.

Concern about pupils will also be raised at next week's NASUWT conference. Jules Donaldson, a secondary school teacher from Sandwell, who is also chair of governors at a primary school, will argue that behaviour is "considerably worsening" because the "joy" has been taken out of the curriculum due to testing and increasing government controls.

Mr Donaldson believes that methods of dealing with unruly pupils have so far proved ineffective, and urgent action is needed.

"It's now not uncommon for young children to kick and bite, and some schools just see this as one of the hazards of the job," he told The TES.

Philip Garner, who runs the Behaviour4Learning website, agreed that while the recession was not the sole cause of bad behaviour, family finances were now being cited more often as a factor by teachers.

One teacher from the north of England had told him she had seen a direct link between changes in family life and pupils' behaviour.

"If it's affecting wellbeing, it's bound to have an effect on behaviour," Mr Garner said.


Poor pupil behaviour will be discussed at this year's teachers' union conferences. Among the cases raised by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers:

- Maxine Bradshaw from North Wales, said her car had been vandalised and "bitch" had been painted on another teacher's garden wall.

- Teachers had endured hoax telephone calls, had their cars scratched and windows smashed.

- The ATL's legal services department has received 146 claims for damage to teachers' property at school this academic year, and a further 69 for damage to cars on school grounds.

- Ian Martin from Bristol spoke of staff facing knife threats. He said one teacher of 16 and 17-year-olds, who recently returned to work following a triple bypass heart surgery, was "subjected to a student threatening to shoot him".

- One parent provided a child with a raw egg to smash on a teacher's head, and a father encouraged his child to start a fight in the playground, according to Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary.

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