Nerves fray as the kids play up

8th October 2004 at 01:00
The majority of secondary teachers now believe indiscipline is a major concern - but most primary staff do not share that view. David Henderson reports

The latest survey of school views on indiscipline shows that nearly six out of 10 secondary teachers see it as a serious or very serious problem in classrooms and around the school. They describe it as a low-level, persistent and and grinding challenge.

A "rather depressing" picture of secondary classrooms emerges, with lower attaining S4 boys said to cause most difficulties. That finding alone will fuel the desire among many policy-makers for further extensive curriculum reform, led by the drive on vocational education.

The Scottish Executive study, headed by Professor Pamela Munn, dean of education at Edinburgh University, confirms that secondary teachers are facing a year on year rise in indiscipline. In a similar study 14 years ago, 36 per cent of secondary teachers saw the situation as serious or very serious. Today, that figure is 59 per cent.

"This is quite a marked rise and has a statistical significance," the researchers say. An increasing number of teachers report a wide range of disruptive behaviour around the school, such as general unruliness while waiting, rowdiness and the persistent breaking of school rules.

As one teacher commented: "What I find most exhausting is the low-level constant disruption caused by pupils who cannot concentrate on a task . . .

at times I feel I accomplish very little, because so much of the lesson is wasted supplying pencils, chasing up homework, cajoling nagging giving punishment exercises etc to pupils who are perfectly pleasant but who cannot will not take responsibility for their behavioureducation."

In June, the General Teaching Council for Scotland upped the ante by challenging researchers, the Education Minister and the inspectorate over claims that teachers were exaggerating the extent of the problem.

"Teachers have changed. They are no longer prepared to tolerate a rising tide of continual, low-level indiscipline. They are adopting a zero tolerance to violence," the GTC declared.

The council's views appear to be confirmed, in part, by Professor Munn's latest survey. Four out of 10 secondary teachers say that pupils have changed. But violent incidents involving pupils and teachers remain relatively rare. Out of 528 teachers in 104 schools who responded to the sample survey, 40 reported actual physical aggression against them in 2004, compared with six in 1996.

A little over four out of 10 secondary teachers believe violence is a problem, compared with just under three in 10 in 1996. Verbal aggression between pupils is the most common type of incident.

One teacher summed up the attitude of many: "Pupils appear to arrive in secondary school with little control over their behaviour. They are not badly behaved as such but they have limited understanding of the rules re talk, getting teacher's attention, being organised for classes etc.

"I have seen the gradual and systematic erosion of discipline over the years. This is not really of the very violent type - it would be unusual for me to witness a violently aggressive incident. However, daily verbal abuse and tiring continual poor behaviour is demanding for staff and good pupils."

Secondary heads take a slightly different perspective, although they, too, say that behaviour is worse. Just over one in four (26 per cent) now regard discipline as a serious or very serious issue, up 14 per cent from 1990.

The study points out that standards of discipline are notoriously difficult to define. "What counts as indiscipline in one school or classroom may not be seen that way elsewhere. Even the same teacher may vary in his or her standard of discipline depending on circumstances such as the age or stage of the class, the history or reputation of a particular pupil, the time of day or year and the teacher's own mood," it states.

In primary schools, more teachers are reporting cheeky or impertinent remarks, "calculated idleness" and pupil to pupil sexist abuse or harassment. But physical aggression towards other pupils has dropped, a consequence, perhaps, of initiatives on anti-bullying, playground behaviour and circle time.

Primary teachers appear more optimistic about discipline, despite the rise from 17 per cent to 22 per cent between 1996 and 2004 of staff who describe discipline as a serious or very serious problem. Only 12 per cent of primary heads believe the situation is serious or very serious.

The researchers conclude that a multifaceted approach to rising indiscipline in primaries and secondaries is more likely to pay dividends.

Schools are taking the issue seriously and doing much to promote good discipline but boys in both primary and secondary can be particularly difficult.

Discipline in Scottish Schools: A comparative survey over time of teachers'

and headteachers' perceptions. By Pamela Munn, Margaret Johnstone and Stephen Sharp of Edinburgh University.

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