Staffroom culture encourages a conspiracy of silence about problem pupils, which makes teachers wary about asking for help and reluctant to publicise their successes in modifying the miscreants' behaviour, according to research published last week.
Dr Andy Miller, course director in educational psychology at Nottingham University, interviewed 24 primary teachers who had all succeeded, with the help of educational psychologists, in reforming the behaviour of violent and disruptive pupils. The children included a 10-year-old who threw furniture around the classroom and a six-year-old arsonist. Improvements had been effected by using the psychologist as an arbitrator between the teacher and parents, preventing either "side" from becoming defensive or blaming the other.
Dr Miller argues that, by using this approach, it would be possible to halt the escalating number of exclusions and prevent the sort of crisis seen recently at Manton Junior School in Nottinghamshire. However, he says few schools are aware of the potential of the approach because "the staff culture encourages teachers to be reticent about such achievements".
Dr Miller also discovered that when a notoriously disruptive pupil's behaviour began to improve, the other teachers noticed but showed a remarkable lack of curiosity about how the change had been effected. One child was so infamous that staff would regularly swap horror stories at break; when his behaviour improved, they simply stopped talking about him.
The stress of dealing with disruptive pupils tended to affect teachers' home lives and several said they felt that to complain about an unruly child to colleagues would reflect badly on their own competence.
Twenty-two of the 24 teachers said colleagues were uninterested in their work with the disruptive child, negative about the psychologist's recommendations or doubtful about the likelihood of their success.
Andy Miller said that research had shown similar problems in secondary schools but agreed that primary teachers were more likely to be embarrassed about confessing they could not manage a very young child. His research, he said, provided grounds for optimism, because it showed that using an educational psychologist as a mediator does work. "It is expensive in terms of EP and teacher time, but not nearly so expensive as a place in a special school after exclusion."
He also said that staff should be able to discuss difficult pupils without the fear that their ability to control classes would be doubted. "It's impossible to move on until the angry, demoralised feelings are acknowledged openly. The educational psychologist's job is to choreograph the negative feelings of teachers, parents and pupils, helping all of them to devise a strategy for progress."
Pupil Behaviour and Teacher Culture by Andy Miller (Cassell Introduction to Education series, Pounds 12.99)