Myth: 'Behaviour and discipline in schools today are far worse than in the past'

6th November 2009 at 00:00
In the first of a five-part series confronting enduring education myths, Adrian Elliott, a former headteacher and inspector, examines whether behaviour today really has deteriorated

Indiscipline and antisocial behaviour among the young, both in and outside school, are rarely out of the news.

Most secondary teachers deal with some disruptive pupils, and many suffer stress as a result. The worst incidents, including the murder of a headteacher at his school gates and of a pupil in a rural school, have shocked everyone. Our fears are confirmed by television footage from undercover reporters posing as supply teachers showing pupils out of control.

Aside from the worst events, the daily effect on teachers of even so-called "low-level disruption", needless chatter, equipment being dropped, and so on, can be extremely draining.

But does the reality of life in thousands of schools across the country really warrant descriptions such as "howling, indisciplined chaos" in the Daily Mail last year or headlines such as "Collapse of the classrooms as hooligans win power struggle"? And is behaviour in English state schools actually so much worse than in the past?

Certainly, parents do not think so: more than 85 per cent believe discipline in their own child's school is good. Neither does Ofsted, which scrutinises thousands of schools each year.

The chief inspector's latest report found that behaviour was good or outstanding in more than 90 per cent of primary schools and more than 70 per cent of secondary schools. Behaviour was unsatisfactory in only 2 per cent, a fourfold decrease over recent years. Indeed, the report noted that "antisocial behaviour is far less common in schools than in other contexts".

This year, Sir Alan Steer published his 200-page report on improving behaviour. It made nearly 50 recommendations and was no soft touch on the effects of poor discipline on the life chances of children.

But neither, to the disappointment of some, did Sir Alan emerge as a doomsayer. He noted that the "great majority of pupils work hard and behave well ... It is often the case that for pupils, school is a calm place in a disorderly world". He stressed that serious misbehaviour is exceptionally rare and committed by a tiny minority.

Tellingly, the report found that while conflicting statements are made about behaviour in schools, those based on real evidence support the view of an improving situation. Recent research - for example, at Bournemouth University - found that pupils were less likely to truant, fight, steal, drink or take drugs than their predecessors 20 years ago.

Understandably, the greatest anxiety about behaviour today in schools involves bullying. At worst, bullying leads to a dreadful sense of isolation and even self-harm and suicide.

Yet in my experience, most heads and teachers see the issue as crucial, spending hours investigating allegations. How many teachers today would describe bullying as "part of growing up", as often happened in the past?

The reality of the past

Behaviour in schools today is constantly compared with the past, when pupils apparently sat up straight and never answered back. Comments appear daily in the media bemoaning the failings of the young and their teachers. But when was this "golden age"?

The end of the Great War, perhaps ... an event that pupils of Graham Greene's father (head of a leading public school) celebrated by trying to drown him? They chased him in their hundreds and he escaped only narrowly.

Or was it in 1931? A visitor to a lesson in London observed that "four lads were taking pot-shots out of the window with inkwells; another group were playing cards whilst several were pushing desks around for fun".

Many seem to regard the post-war period up to the mid-1960s as the real golden age.

While researching a book on the state of English schools, I examined hundreds of HMI reports from the 1950s and early 1960s and received more than 300 accounts from those who had been pupils at that time. A large majority of both the reports and reminiscences were certainly positive about behaviour. But so, let's recall, are most Ofsted reports and pupils' comments now.

Yet one correspondent wrote about his 1950s school being "quite rough ... whenever a large group congregated either a fight was in progress or a boy was disrobing a girl". Another described teachers who "could not maintain order at all" and "classes conducted amidst continuous chaos".

In his autobiography, Roaring Boys, one-time teacher Edward Blishen recalled how, after one classmate had attacked him, another confided that "he's always hitting masters".

And contemporary HMI reports suggest that behaviour was poor then in at least as high a proportion of schools as today, if Ofsted reports are to be believed. Significant misbehaviour was reported in a Bristol grammar school and a Cumberland secondary modern ("serious indiscipline, a lack of courtesy and widespread graffiti and vandalism in the girls' toilets"). Half the science teachers at a Leeds girls' grammar school had "serious disciplinary problems".

Behavioural problems in London schools were more common. In one, discipline was so poor that a woman governor demanded to know whether corporal punishment was used enough. "Regularly" replied the senior inspector. "The problem is one of leadership."

Crimes were committed by pupils in the years following the end of the Second World War that, if they occurred now, would dominate the media for weeks.

In Hull in the late 1940s, five 11-year-olds made a younger boy stand "trial" and then set fire to him; he survived but one leg had to be amputated.

At around the same time, a group of boys at a Staffordshire school decided to kill their headteacher. Armed with rifles, they confronted another teacher who they shot dead instead. In court, the ringleader said he was "sorry it was not the headteacher, but it was no good leaving the victim alive after I had shot him once".

Contemporary press coverage was astonishingly muted. The Hull case was reported in The Times underneath a story about a Crufts champion. (Another post-war case, a toddler murdered by a 10-year-old, appeared - incredibly - below a report of the opening of a child-welfare centre.) Although The Times led with the school murder, there was little follow-up afterwards.

The Daily Mirror's approach was similar. It covered all three cases but led with none, and there were no editorial references or letters. This low-key media response would be inconceivable today.

Teaching is a challenging, sometimes stressful job and in a minority of schools behaviour is unacceptably bad. A strong argument could also be made for evidence of a decline in parental respect for teachers over the past five decades.

However, national coverage of the most violent behaviour by pupils leads to misleading comparisons between selective memories from our own schooldays and modern events plucked from thousands of schools, most of which are wholly untypical.

Constantly exaggerating the failings of schools and the young today while offering a false picture of the past benefits nobody.

Adrian Elliott is the author of 'State Schools Since the 1950s: the Good News' (Trentham Books)

Next week "The apparent rise in standards is just due to exams getting easier"


Major violent incidents suffered by employees per year in the UK, by job

Public administration: 325

Health: 169

Social work: 94

Retail: 61

Other business: 60

Hotels and restaurants: 47

Land transport: 39

Adult education: 34

Transport support: 12

Secondary education: 12

Recreation: 10

Sewage and refuse disposal: 9

Property: 8

Higher education: 7

Primary education: 7

Post and telecommunications: 6


- Pupils in the 1950s are estimated to have truanted at least four times as often as the pupils of today, even though the school leaving age was younger.

- In last year's teacher survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research, 94 per cent rated behaviour in their school "very good", "good" or "acceptable".

- Surveys by the NUT indicate that teachers became more positive about behaviour between 2001 and 2008.

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