Media 'myth' of violent schools

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Moral panic about rising indiscipline is nothing new and mostly mistaken, Pamela Munn, dean of education at Edinburgh University, last week told a conference on overcoming violence.

Professor Munn has been appointed by ministers to research classroom disruption and get behind the apparent increase in incidents against staff - but remains firmly in the circumspect camp.

"Media headlines give you the impression there is mayhem in the classrooms but this is not true. We need to treat stories about the rising process of violence with caution," she told the conference on anti-violence initiatives at Moray House.

Figures released three weeks ago highlighted a 27 per cent rise in violent incidents involving teachers and other school staff, the fourth year in succession that the statistics showed an increase.

Professor Munn said there were many explanations for misbehaviour and violence but putting the blame on medical or psychological conditions was an inadequate response. Many pupils who caused difficulties were being diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). "If you go down that road it is in some way very comforting because the cure is a pill," she said.

There was some medical evidence that behaviour related to biology but that alone was an insufficient explanation. Other research pointed to individual and family psychology and the way children were brought up.

"The cure then is for individual intervention and family therapy and while that is important, it is not the whole story. The two characteristics of the medical and psychological work is that they root the problem in the individual and so it is individual solutions that need to be found," Professor Munn said.

A growing field of research was now looking at schools as social institutions. "What is it about the the way schools are organised that can actually promote good behaviour or violence? There are things that schools can do to help tackle bad behaviour and counter violence. These things are not rocket science.

"These are straightforward things to do with using praise, recognising good behaviour, thinking about organising the playground and making sure things that happen in the playground are dealt with, and more fundamentally thinking about how the curriculum is organised, how pupils' learning is valued and whether pupils are put down. There are many things that can promote good behaviour," she said.

Margaret McIntosh, a former secondary head and key figure in the Overcoming Violence Project that has involved seven schools and communities over the past three years, said there was proof that school strategies could help.

"The potential for change is there and attitudes can be turned around.

There is no point being a teacher if you cannot change attitudes," Mrs McIntosh said.

In responses from the floor, some teachers called for more social workers to help families where the root of problems lay. Others blamed the lack of positive activities outside school for young people getting into trouble around street corners.

One teacher told of children in a housing scheme setting fire to a children's centre and waiting for the fire engines to arrive before stoning them.

LEADER 22; opinion 23

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