From revolving doors to riots in one uneasy step

19th August 2011 at 01:00

The red mist had descended over the boy's face. With teeth gritted and eyes boring through the girl at the front of the classroom, he lunged towards her. I made a split-second decision that most teachers are faced with at some point and found myself restraining the young man by the shoulder of his coat, carefully making sure I did not hurt or mark him in any way.

If I had not done this, the girl would have been seriously hurt. Ultimately, I ended up getting hurt. Not seriously, just a couple of bruises, as the young man was determined to get past me to get to the girl.

He didn't intentionally want to attack me - luckily that is something I have never faced. But in that moment he didn't care who I was, what he was doing or how it could possibly hurt me. I was fortunate because my headteacher was very understanding and dealt with it brilliantly. The young man was permanently excluded.

I can understand how the recent 40 per cent drop in permanent exclusions for attacks on staff might reflect a positive improvement in behaviour. But the view from the chalkface is different. From here we see inclusion replacing exclusion, where non-permanent exclusion time is drastically reduced. The road to permanent exclusion is a long, laborious process involving logging a pupil's behaviour for many years.

In this light, the 40 per cent drop has a certain sinister edge for the classroom teacher. Behaviour may be improving, but so, too, is a school's ability to use any means possible, included managed moves, to keep its permanent exclusion figures down.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to be able to agree with Malcolm Trobe, policy director at the Association of School and College Leaders, that "discipline and behaviour in schools is very good". But I just can't. In my experience, and that of my friends and family who are teachers, there are many schools with beautifully behaved pupils and excellent behaviour policies. However, I have never worked in a school without challenging behaviour. Not one. Each and every one of them has pockets or entire cohorts of disaffected pupils who disrupt the learning of others.

And the extent of support for those pupils, and teachers who are placed with the responsibility of improving their levels, varies an unacceptable amount.

I can't shake the feeling that we're teaching pupils more than geography and statistics. We're teaching them that the consequences of their actions aren't severe enough to stop them misbehaving again. We're teaching them that empathy for others doesn't matter. We're teaching them that what they want in the moment matters more than long-term success.

Last week we all turned on our TV screens to be faced with rioting young people, red mist descended, eyes boring, ready for attack, living in the moment, prepared to loot whatever they could with no qualms about ruining a future career - a future life.

These disaffected young people are our pupils. The youngest offender I saw reported was 11. Instead of spending his summer holidays playing on his bike, flirting with the girls on his neighbourhood and going to the leisure centre, he was looting his local high street.

If we don't look at educational policy, and the message these rioters are giving us about flagrant dismissal of consequences, something is going badly wrong. Not because these youngsters are somehow forgotten victims of an uncaring society, but because we have neglected to teach them that actions have consequences or equip them with the right skills to build a secure future. Largely because our hands have been tied by ineffective policies for too long.

The Arab Spring showed us the power of civil uprising, of standing united against oppressive forces and changing a country for the better. Our young people don't know how to use their platform to raise awareness for the event that triggered the riots. It's just a chance to steal a 52-inch flatscreen and brag about it on YouTube.

According to Professor John Pitts, a criminologist who advises local authorities in London on young people and gangs, looting makes "powerless people suddenly feel powerful". Education, support, structure and ambition make us feel we have the power to control our future. How many behaviour logs have been filled in about these rioters? How many managed moves have they been through? How many times have they gained the sense that they can simply get away with it?

The behavioural policy revolving-door needs to shut while these riots are still the exception and not the rule.

Amy Winston is an English teacher at a comprehensive in the West Midlands.

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