I was wary when approached by ex-teacher-turned-film-maker Sylvia Thomas to advise on the TV programme Chaos in the Classroom, shown on Five on Wednesday. Was this yet another sensationalist attempt to demonise young people and feed a moral panic about their behaviour?
However the film, denounced by some in education as underhand because it features hidden camera footage of "pupils behaving badly", usefully challenges various myths now prevalent in the behaviour debate.
The film is as much about teaching as about pupils. It is helpful that it has been made by someone with chalk-face experience. Thomas taught in large, "rough" secondary schools throughout the Seventies. She signed up as a supply teacher, teaching in 18 state schools over six months.
What shocked her was that any teacher walking into a classroom and asking for attention no longer commands automatic authority. Rather than concluding that this is because pupils are more "feral", as some electioneering politicians have disgracefully labelled them recently, or pointing the finger at their parents, as the teaching unions are disgracefully wont to do, the programme hinted at other problems. The challenge to teachers' authority is not the fault of the pupils per se.
Thomas notes a shift of power: "The balance between the child and the teacher has swung too far in favour of the former - and they know it. The way they walk down the corridor says 'we are in control'."
It will be familiar to every teacher to hear another boy accusing her of touching him, while threatening to report her and sue. It is not that pupils have become more "bolshy" about their rights. Rather, official attitudes towards discipline are ambiguous, forcing teachers to walk on eggshells. Teachers can no longer act instinctively, whether to control or console pupils, fearful that their actions will break one of the myriad Department for Education and Skills' codes of conduct governing teacher-pupil contact. One teacher interviewed in the film explained that while teachers might want to laugh off the threats of pupil barrack-room lawyers, in the back of their minds is a doubt about whether they will get support. After all, children's rights are now educational orthodoxy.
Populist political measures have added to the confusion about who calls the shots. Pupil power is a key DfES policy. Schools have a statutory obligation to create student councils through which pupils must be consulted about aspects of running schools. Recently David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, proposed that inspectors should ask pupils to judge their school or nursery. While pupils' opinions are courted by officialdom, teachers are sidelined. With every aspect of their work now inspected by outside agencies, and assessment carried out to strict external criteria, it is clear that teachers' authority is being undermined by the system rather than the students. When teachers are shown such contempt by politicians, is it any wonder pupils show them a lack of respect?
Worse, a prescriptive curriculum can contribute to poor behaviour. Thomas muses that the lessons she was asked to deliver were not intellectually challenging enough to engage pupils. Centrally-devised lesson plans downloaded from government agency websites are destined to make lessons dull and empty teaching of any creativity. Without the authority teachers derive from their enthusiasm and knowledge of a subject, why should pupils shut up and listen?
Historically the young have behaved in class not due to acquiescence, but to quench their thirst for the one thing teachers are uniquely qualified to deliver - new ideas that stimulate their imagination. Teachers should avoid obsessing on "getting the buggers to behave". The DfES's National Behaviour and Attendance Strategy recommends a plethora of classroom management training books and videos, implying that teachers need lessons in behaviour modification techniques. Yet the only lessons that teachers need are their own lessons back.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas: www.instituteofideas.com