Ruth Skywalker's phantom menace

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Well, thank goodness for the task force. For a moment, I thought we might be doomed: battle-weary teachers collapsing under the strain of backchat and happy slaps, losing the classroom baton to disruption. Bad behaviour is apparently taking over, and with the election wrapped, Labour can get down and dirty in the gritty reality of Britain's schools: Ruth Kelly and her Jedi knights are going to save us from anarchy. So what will the task force do? Talk, probably. And after the talking, there will be three or four programmes proven to vanquish bad behaviour. They shall be offered to schools and, according to our Education Minister, leave "no excuses" for indiscipline. Why, Ms Kelly, that sounds a bit like a threat.

Permit me to make a small list of just some of the factors that give rise to problematic behaviour: parental support, peer and media influences, economic and environmental factors, diet and nutrition, self-esteem, value systems, the development of emotional and social awareness. These are just some of the factors that give rise to problematic behaviour. Many exist beyond the remit of the classroom, yet they influence what goes on in it.

Behaviour programmes can play a role in nurturing order and stability, but they cannot provide a complete answer. To say there will be "no excuse" for poor behaviour is unfair and unrealistic.

There are many examples of successful schools - some in extremely deprived areas - that have already developed effective whole-school policies. They bring about progress by recognising the need to work with problems, rather than refusing to tolerate their existence. They underpin school culture with a strong ethos of respect - it seems they knew the value of the R word, long before Tony adopted it - and emphasise consistent practice and discipline. From such establishments, including Seven Kings high school in north-west London, bastion of Sir Alan Steer (chair of Ruth Kelly's task force all-stars), we can definitely learn. But we will not be able to sweep the problem under the classroom carpet. It is part of our world. Unless we can transform society at large, we will always have challenging behaviour.

I recently gave a lecture on behaviour and inclusion. In the after-session discussion, my students (a mixture of trainee teachers and teaching assistants) were quick to acknowledge the troubled circumstances of their troublesome pupils, understanding of their needs but exasperated by the on-going lack of support and training. It seems we are not short of empathy, but we are short of solutions. Like ensuring that every parent is armed with the skills required to raise emotionally healthy, well-adjusted offspring? Like overhauling the shallow consumerist mindset that encourages us to value all the wrong things? Like reforming the secondary curriculum to encourage better pupil engagement with learning?

Perhaps the problem is one of accountability. We like to blame. Who do we blame for the fact that our society nurtures and sustains young people who behave in ways that dismay us? Schools blame parents. Parents blame schools. Both blame politicians - and politicians blame them. But what we truly need is collaboration: meaningful progress will only emerge when everyone takes their share of responsibility, from youths in their hoodies to mass-media moguls. May the task force be with them.

Louisa Leaman is a behaviour support teacher and winner of the TES New Columnists' competition 2004

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