Pussyfooting doesn't help naughty boys

23rd January 2009 at 00:00

Recently, I opened up my newspaper to find Christine Gilbert, Ofsted's chief inspector, telling us how much behaviour in our schools has improved.

It came as a surprise to me - especially after watching a Channel 4 programme the same evening about badly behaved primary pupils. The statistics were staggering: the programme-makers had carried out a massive survey of primary teachers, 93 per cent of whom said they had experienced very disruptive behaviour in their classrooms during the past 18 months.

The programme became more jaw-dropping by the minute. We were taken to a primary school where three adults - yes, three - were shown restraining a child and carrying him to a room where he could calm down. The room, like a large prison cell, was devoid of furniture or equipment in case children escorted there kicked it to bits.

As the child was carried, he made the appropriate gestures of struggling to get away and told his captors to "Fuck off". Then he stood kicking the door while being told it would be helpful if he made some "sensible choices" about his behaviour. The programme concluded by stating that aggressive behaviour such as this could be avoided if there were funding for nurture groups in schools.

When children are highly disruptive, the reason is usually obvious. One child, for example, had a mother with a drink problem. Another came from a chaotic home. And yet here were teachers asking children who'd experienced little sense of normality to make sensible choices.

Watching the programme, it struck me that in every example we saw, the child was in charge. At no time did an adult challenge the poor behaviour. It was all about the child's options and "choices".

When I became a headteacher, the behaviour of my top juniors was grim. I needed to sort it out - because younger children look up to the older ones - so I spent every Tuesday teaching Year 6. They had individual desks in those days, and on the first Tuesday they banged their desk lids continually and watched my reaction.

I'd been expecting something like this, so I put on a theatrical display of losing my temper. They certainly sat up and took notice. From that moment on, I didn't give them an inch. And, gradually, they discovered that my lessons were entertaining and that I might be worth listening to.

Those days are long gone, and yet the principles are the same. There are two essentials for good behaviour in schools: high-quality, caring teachers and exceptionally clear behaviour boundaries - adhered to by everybody.

School should be an interesting, exciting place, but children need to know where they stand - especially potentially disruptive ones who need kind but decisive adults to set the boundaries for them, not pussyfoot around them.

Good behaviour starts in the very early years, and I am extremely firm with small children who can't behave. They, too, are testing the water to see what you are prepared to accept. If you don't get things right when children are very small, you haven't much of a chance later on.

At my school, the biggest difficulties occur with children who are transferring to us from schools that tolerate poor levels of behaviour, excuse it with a fancy psychological label or don't do anything about it until it's become a real problem.

We always deal with it successfully, but it's only a small step from there to the behaviour shown in the programme. That vision of three adults carting a small child off down the corridor will stay with me for years.

God forbid that I should ever need to do that.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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