There's a wonderful line in the film Aliens in which soldiers are up against deadly creatures and they are told to be cautious with their firepower. "What do you expect us to use, man, harsh language?" asks one.
I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, when the front page of The TES told us that police knife searches in certain city schools will soon be routine. Then, inside the paper, a report informed us about a headteacher called in front of a General Teaching Council for England (GTC) disciplinary panel because, among other things, she had removed the shoes of pupils who repeatedly kicked other children. These pieces of news were quite separate from each other, but it struck me that they are actually inextricably linked.
Most teachers would be hard pressed to tell you what the GTC does for its money, but the function of its disciplinary arm is very clear indeed (even if for the life of me I can't understand why disciplinary matters can't be dealt with at local level by a school, its governors or the local authority). In this particular case, there was a witness who said the boys whose shoes had been removed were "very embarrassed". Then the chair of the panel said, incredibly, that removing the shoes was a practice that "could lead to children being demeaned".
I could hardly believe what I was reading. Wasn't that the purpose of removing the shoes? Weren't the children supposed to be embarrassed? Wasn't the idea to deter them from doing it again? And how did the children who had been kicked feel? Weren't they, and their parents, entitled to feel that something had been done?
Of course, the head had a number of options. She could have used harsh language. Or asked the miscreants to sign behaviour contracts. Or called in a behaviour therapist. She could have summoned the parents and spoken to them, although it's often the children of parents who can't control their unruly offspring at home who behave badly in school. Possibly she'd done some of these things before resorting to shoe removal.
Too often, though, nothing at all is done, or at least nothing effective, and naughty children start to realise that they can get away with almost anything. We'd rather bring in the educational psychologists, or make excuses for badly behaved children, or give the children a label rather than tell them off severely or "embarrass" them. Which is why we've reached the point where knife searches in secondary schools will become routine. Presumably, if I took a knife from a child now, I'd be accused of "demeaning" him.
I am constantly astonished by the behaviour teachers have to put up with these days, even from very young children. Last week, a supply teacher told me she'd worked in a reception classroom where five-year-olds had been extremely abusive to her. Why should anyone have to put up with that? I can't think that any child would do that in my school because the behaviour boundaries are just too strong. But if they did, they'd be up to my room like a shot and my displeasure would be made exceptionally clear to them.
Last weekend, I read that police have investigated a three-year-old for disorder and vandalism, that the child is among 10 children aged five and under being investigated for crimes, and that more than 6,000 offences have been committed by children under 10 in the past three years. Heaven only knows what is going on in their homes.
But if the parents can't handle it, the primary schools certainly have to. And maybe taking the shoes from children who are kicking is a start.
- Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org