The roots of playground mayhem;Comment;Opinion

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Among alligators at a crucial stage of gestation, a variation in temperature of only one degree can result in a batch of eggs ending up all male or all female. The result is gender chaos in the saurian world. I don't know if there's a knock-on effect anywhere, but by some kind of demographic quirk or glitch I have very few boys at the top end of the scale.

One curious consequence is that the football competition in the front playground gets more and more animated. As Darth Vader might say, weapons have been set for stun. Any misguided infant who unwittingly strays into the daily football terrain runs the risk of possible concussion, or even extinction.

I'm a little at a loss to explain to myself why what passes for self-organised sport on the playground has taken such a turn for the worse. Why does it lack all sophistication? Why does it have no clout and connections, when it paradoxically is almost totally clout and connections?

I know the result is a surveillance state mentality in myself and my janitor. Playground supervision is more focused than ever before, to ensure that the 1000 yard stare and the pigeon chested square-up remain just that.

Quite apart from the potential mayhem, the playground is poorly designed for sport of this kind. Bushes line the viable playing space and three short stairways with metal failings lead to the toilets. Let a ball get into any of the "dookets" and the East End version of the Eton Wall Game ensues. With almost inevitable results.

Is the constant threat of violence, combined with disregard for rules, some kind of spin off from what William James called the exclusive worship of the bitch goddess Success that is our national disease? Is it due to overexposure to the practices of professional fouling and uncontrolled aggression washing over terrestrial and satellite football coverage seven days a week? To the lack of sporting male role models who do not barge, binge, boot or booze? To lack of an unmacho male in so many boys' lives?

It might be elements of all these. And to paper over the credibility gap caused by demographic imbalance, girls now play football as well, showing more skill and subtlety than thud and blunder.

In opposition Education Secretary David Blunkett advocated some form of mentoring to encourage children to put in effort at school. In our community the local police have organised a simple form of this. It combines a football tournament of mixed gender, a knowledge of Europe, video encouragement from Craig Brown and the support of the Scottish Football Association.

It may perhaps raise young people horizons. But I still see an unwillingness, even an inability, to face the prospect of defeat. And I still wonder if this can be traced back in some way to underlying stress at every level that we teachers are failing to recognise. We like to think we understand our pupils. But we simply do not know the kinds of stress our children stuff into their backpacks every day and bring to school with them, from domestic chaos to harassment of every kind.

John MacBeath recently pointed out the need for relaxation techniques for children to relieve stress and so improve performance. Some English authorities teach simplified meditation techniques to disruptive children. I couldn't agree more in principle, but I have reservations about the praxis.

The temptation that comes with working in areas of deprivation is taking on the role of social worker - or even therapist. It is a seductive one. Teachers feel obliged to do something about demonstrated needs, even to tackle them head on. Yet we remain teachers. The demands on us are increasing daily, perhaps to the detriment of the justified concern we feel for children whose problems we can only dimly perceive.

It's a no-win situation. The Titanic may yet become a model for us, illustrating the dangers of connecting too closely with social icebergs lurking just below the surface.

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