Problem that has always been with us

6th February 2004 at 00:00
On my way to school recently, listening to the Highland slot at 7.50am on BBC Radio Scotland, there was an item about violence in Western Isles schools which attracted my attention. This concerned an alleged substantial increase in incidents of violence by pupils against teaching staff.

A Western Isles education department official explained that the increase was related to an improvement in the recording of such incidents and also to a change in the definition of violence to include verbal violence.

I could sympathise with this official to some extent, since our method of recording incidents at Oban High has gone through similar changes, and he was obviously attempting to preserve the good reputation of Western Isles schools (rightly so). However, in doing so the real issue, the unacceptable nature of such incidents, was swept under the carpet.

I do not mean to judge this spokesperson harshly since I would have said exactly the same thing myself, but I am concerned that in our bid to improve the image of our schools and build up our communities' confidence in Scottish education, we are papering over the cracks.

Each one of those incidents of violence which we report represents a situation which has been highly stressful for both the teacher and often other pupils who have witnessed it and has severely disrupted the education of pupils.

I welcome the fact that we are recording this information and regret we did not start to do this a long time ago so that trends could be identified.

In discussion with one of my experienced guidance teachers recently, we were bemoaning the usual small group of disruptive pupils who take up so much of our time (and contribute to our report statistics). "Mind you," she said, "they've always been with us."

Comparing the past and present in education is difficult since so much has changed and we are not comparing like with like. My early days in teaching were spent mainly in inner city schools and these were very difficult places. Other colleagues have better memories of those times, so our views on present trends in pupil behaviour may be highly influenced by our past experiences.

Schools have moved on in terms of pastoral care and building positive, more caring climates. Given the huge changes in our society, one wonders just what difficulties we might have been facing now if we had not gone down that road. Yet those difficult students are still with us. Perhaps the truth is that we have been running hard just to keep up.

These difficulties have been acknowledged by the Scottish Executive and the document Better Behaviour, Better Learning. We all recognise that there is no quick fix to the problem and that a multi-faceted approach is necessary.

The recent announcement that schools in Scotland are to have behaviour co-ordinators as part of a framework for intervention is very welcome and will add another support structure for teachers.

We are fortunate to have been part of the Argyll and Bute pilot in the framework for intervention and two of our staff were trained as behaviour co-ordinators (we decided not to call them "Becos" since we thought that sounded like something we would use for baking). Since then they have done an excellent job in supporting our staff.

Staff find this type of support effective because it involves another classroom teacher and a dialogue. The teacher chooses strategies with which he or she is comfortable and the process helps to overcome those feelings of isolation which many teachers experience in the classroom. It is also a non-judgmental process.

What it is not, however, is a panacea for all classroom ills and, despite the level of classroom management and behaviour management skills which teachers might develop, there will always be pupils who cannot be managed within the normal classroom.

Unfortunately, and unacceptably, not all schools in Scotland have the resources to support such pupils in any meaningful way and to put into operation strategies that are known to be effective.

The Scottish Executive has got it right but needs to put greater resources into this issue and to recognise that the problems are not limited to urban areas but are across Scotland. Resources have been coming to schools but they are spread too thinly to be really effective.

Linda Kirkwood is headteacher of Oban HighIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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