Teachers aren't cops

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Schools are not equipped to handle children who are out of control and causing severe disruption in classrooms, says Peter Wright

eachers will be unsure whether to laugh or to cry. Violent incidents in Scottish schools are at an all-time high and the reaction of the minister responsible for Scottish classrooms is to: (a) appoint a discipline "tsar"; (b) invite a quondam teacher trade union leader to become his personal consultant over the issue; (c) query the basis on which the figures are compiled.

On second thoughts, the response will certainly be laughter of a very hollow and bitter kind. Teachers have been demanding consistency in the reporting of such incidents for long enough and neither the so-called discipline tsar nor the former trade unionist have been anywhere near a working classroom in many years.

Teachers will suspect that the nearest they will get to one in future will be for the purposes of a photo opportunity with suitably docile pupils in teaching areas that, metaphorically, reek of whitewash.

Last year, the local branch of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association carried out a census of pupil behaviour in West Lothian secondary schools.

The results confirmed what teachers all over Scotland already know but which education ministers and their cronies have yet to come to terms with.

The vast majority of lessons were well organised and well taught.

However, a minority of lessons were severely disrupted by a tiny number of pupils who inflict a level of damage out of all proportion to their numbers. Worse, no amount of assertive discipline codes, pupil behaviour cards and anger management classes appear to make the slightest difference.

As a colleague memorably put it: "They can pi** in your ear and they know there is nothing you can do about it."

If it's bad for classroom teachers, it can be even worse for their colleagues in senior management teams. This handful of pupils involve deputes and heads in inordinate amounts of paperwork and innumerable interviews with parents who frequently fail to turn up but who are on the telephone a nanosecond after their child has been slagged off by one of their peers, be it in school or in the queue of the local chip shop of an evening.

Senior managers also have to be prepared at a moment's notice, and clutching walkie talkies, to run to the support of their classroom colleagues who refuse to put up with the disruption and abuse any longer.

The most expensive human resources in a secondary school, charged with its strategic direction and implementation of national priorities, end up looking like extras in a second-rate cop show on afternoon television.

So, what is to be done?

First, the presumption of mainstreaming which is embedded in the Education Act must be removed. In its place, the Scottish Executive should insert an entitlement to an education appropriate to the needs of the child. In all the sound and fury which will be created by this debate, it must never be forgotten that at the centre of it all is a child.

That child will invariably have needs which are complex and difficult to deliver. In all likelihood, he or she will have parents who once had similar needs and now have a low estimation of an education system which failed to deliver for them. Sadly, that estimation is still all too correct even today.

Let's remove these children from schools which are not equipped to cope with them. Let's place them in an adequate number of external facilities which are also firmly linked with the mainstream school via an internal behaviour support unit.

Considering the needs of the child and their families together, let's organise teachers, education psychologists, social workers and other agencies into dedicated teams which are tasked only with tackling the needs of these families, with the priority of ending the cycle in the current generation.

And while we are about it, let's link it closely with a rejuvenated children's panel system and a reorganisation and rationalisation of current secure provision for troubled children. A friend who works in such an institution insists that the children are less troubled and often have less reason to be there than some of the pupils he recently taught in a West Lothian secondary school.

Such a system would certainly be expensive but in all probability no more expensive than the aggregate of the current ineffectual process and definitely less expensive in terms of its toll on schools, pupils and teachers.

If we can achieve the above, we can achieve a genuine policy of inclusion in the only time-scale which is realistic for such objectives - a generation or more. Even if we do not wholly succeed in what is admittedly a very difficult and complex task, schools will have been freed to do the job we know they can do if they are allowed to - educate the vast majority of children in an ordered and productive environment.

Peter Wright is West Lothian district secretary of the SSTA.

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