Teenagers have always been difficult...

14th February 2003 at 00:00
...but street wisdom and peer pressure have put secondary teachers in an impossible situation

Dear Trevor Phillips, A fortnight ago you told us that street violence and underachievement by black pupils was the fault of the schools (The TES, January 24). It's easy, you said, for a black boy to be expelled, whereas a white boy has to be a "nutter" to be excluded. You even told us that the failure of black children isn't principally about families or motivation. We're the problem.

The teachers. It's our fault.

At first I felt insulted. Then I felt sad. From the discussions I've had with teachers, you couldn't have done more damage if you'd tried. You quote the "second chance" child who was expelled from his London comprehensive, then excelled at a private school. Did you visit the child's London school to see the difficulties teachers faced there? Do you know how damaging negative peer pressure can be to teenagers? Do you think the teachers, or the children, in a private boarding school are subjected to the same pressures? Of course they're not. Put one unruly teenager into the "second chance" school and he'll change. Put a handful in there - the sort inner-city comprehensives are struggling with - and the school will find it isn't that simple after all.

I know many secondary teachers and I wonder how they do their job. Let me give you three recent examples. In school A, a teacher was on duty behind a door leading to the playground, making sure nobody came in unsupervised. It was chilly, and three boys asked to come inside. They were told there were only a few minutes to wait. Patience not being their virtue, they ran at the door and the teacher was sent hurtling. In school B, a teacher was hit over the head with a bottle by an irate Year 10 student. When the matter came to the attention of senior management, the youth denied being involved. As it was the teacher's word against his, it would have been "difficult" to take the matter forward. In school C, a teacher was taking a Year 8 class. She was appalled at the noise and tried to settle the group.

One boy, his legs on the table, was finishing his can of cola, and she asked him to put it in the bin. He hurled the can towards the bin, missing by yards but splashing everybody nearby.

The youngsters were all black. The can hurler was excluded for a day, and the others given a verbal warning. The children could have been white. They often are. Teenagers have always been difficult, but street wisdom and peer pressure have put secondary teachers in an impossible situation - with the added danger of being labelled racist.

To say family circumstances have little to do with it is fatuous. Without strong guidance from the home, and support a school can rely on, teenagers already in turmoil will become disaffected and impossible to handle. These days, inadequate parents cast around for an easy target when Johnny misbehaves, and the teacher is often the first in their sights. The Commission for Racial Equality isn't renowned for efficiency and effective action, but perhaps under your chairmanship it'll offer schools some positive thinking. I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. And until you've visited lots of secondary schools and really understand the problems, it would be helpful if you could do the same.

Yours sincerely, Mike Kent

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark. Email: mikejkent@aol.com

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