Put them in their place

25th May 2007 at 01:00
Is the balance of power swinging out of control in your classroom? Assert your authority and help your pupils says Sandra Scott

When I was doing family therapy in a hospital, I had two chairs in my consulting room, one of standard size for adults and a small one for children. One day, I saw the beloved only child of two doctors, who was dominating and causing mayhem at home but was anxious and related poorly to his peers at school.

In came his mother and squeezed her rather ample bottom on to the little chair; her small son lost himself in the adult chair.

This, explained the mother, was so that he did not feel "disrespected" or that we were "talking down to him". It wasn't hard to see what the problem was in this case: the family hierarchy was upside down.

I have been reminded of this incident recently while talking to teachers.

Time and again, our conversations come down to the same theme: they feel increasingly powerless and the changing classroom atmosphere is causing conflict and disruption.

While a few pupils seem to thrive, the majority respond negatively to the lack of order - it makes them anxious and more demanding. This situation is also demoralising to teachers and makes them unhappy. As Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says: "(There is a) general deterioration in classroom behaviour by pupils who increasingly lack respect for adults and authority."

These days, the balance of power in the classroom, as in many families I have seen, seems to lie with the children. The decline in the physical power of teachers (including the ban on corporal punishment in the UK in 1987) has coincided with an increase in the psychological power of pupils.

The quick and thorough investigation of responses to children's allegations of mistreatment has proven to be a process open to abuse, with teachers falsely accused of assault. Any claim of assault by a pupil has to be investigated but, while the pupil remains anonymous, the teacher's name can be published in the local press, regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty.

No wonder teachers feel vulnerable and constrained. The anonymity of sites such as Rate My Teachers also has the potential to undermine and persecute them. As Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, says, this online harassment is causing some to consider leaving the profession.

And a report found that letters from Ofsted telling pupils how inspectors rated their teachers were also undermining discipline. Pupils were quoting comments such as: "some teaching is not as good as it should be" to play up in class.

In these politically correct days, "power" has become a dirty word. But, whether we like it or not, teachers need power to control and teach their pupils effectively. Stanley Milgram's classic psychological studies1 on obedience demonstrate emphatically that we obey those whom we view as authority figures. Without order and obedience, classrooms descend into chaos and pupils become anxious, impairing their ability to learn.

Fundamental to Salvador Minuchin's structural family therapy2 are the need for clearly established boundaries and hierarchy within the family. Parents must be in charge for children to feel safe and secure. Giving children too much control makes them anxious. The same applies to "pupil power".

Both Robin Skynner3 and James Dobson4, a leading child psychiatrist and psychologist respectively, confirm that teenagers are most unhappy in a permissive setting and require a mixture of affection and firm guidelines.

The fallout from "pupil power" can last a lifetime. After the home, the school plays an important role in establishing an individual's respect for authority, self-discipline, learning to obey external rules and to work within a system. These are essential psychosocial skills for life and work.

Failure to learn them in school will jeopardise children's future.

So perhaps it's time to shift the balance of power back towards teachers.

Nobody wants to see the return of cane-wielding martinets, but teachers should not feel afraid to assert their authority; they should not have to cringe on the small chair.

Restoring the balance will make both teachers and pupils happier Dr Sandra Scott is a psychiatrist and consultant to the TV programmes I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and Hell's Kitchen


1. Stanley Milgram, Families and Family Therapy. Routledge, 1974.

2. Salvador Minuchin, Obedience to Authority. New York, Harper Row, 1974.

3. Explorations with Families by Robin Skynner and John Schlapobersky. Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1987.

4. Dare to Discipline by James Dobson. Tyndale House Publishers, 1970.

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