Tough isn't enough

7th February 2014 at 00:00

I'm sure steam comes out of my ears when I hear privately educated politicians talking nonsense about state education. In a recent debate, a politician raised the topic of the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tables yet again. "We simply can't afford to stay low in the tables," he said. "Standards must be raised, and if other countries can do it, so can we."

Fortunately, a university lecturer on the panel pointed out that some countries at the top of the tables had unacceptable levels of aggressive competition, causing them to have the highest child suicide rates. But what was not mentioned was the extremely challenging behaviour that teachers in state schools face.

I'm pleased that documentaries about schools are appearing on television, because they highlight what teachers have to endure. On BBC Three's Tough Young Teachers, we follow a group of new teachers who have received some initial training and are now in secondary schools. They are committed and enthusiastic; they carefully design lessons that will engage their students; they work long hours. "I wouldn't have believed," says one, "just how long it takes to mark one book."

We watch, in agony, as a trainee tries to keep order in her class. A chair is kicked around, missiles are fired from elastic bands, objects are hurled, children are rude and belligerent. "I don't understand it," says another trainee. "They just seem to want confrontation with you."

One child, returning to mainstream school from a pupil referral unit, is especially difficult. "Your lessons are boring me, man," he says. "I don't need school. I can get any job I want." What solution is offered? The child is invited to sit down with the trainee in a one-to-one session, so that they can work out their differences. How did we get to the point where a stroppy 13-year-old is considered the teacher's equal?

In a brief interview with a trainee's parents, her father says: "My daughter's heart was set on teaching, but I hate seeing her abused by these unruly children." Teachers want to be able to teach, but without high-quality, supportive leadership, what chance do they have? No wonder so many leave, burned out, after just five years in the profession.

An outstanding teacher who worked at my school until I retired has recently moved. He cannot believe what he is experiencing at his new school. "I think I'll have to resign," he writes. "There are so many disruptive children. One was really abusive today. he hurled his book across the classroom and called another boy disgusting racist names. Then he kicked the teaching assistant.

"I asked for him to be removed but the deputy headteacher refused, saying his behaviour wasn't serious enough. Eventually, he ran out of the class, shouting sexual abuse at everybody. After school I found out that he'd made allegations against me and I was asked for my side of the story. I was then told I had made an `error of judgement' in asking the boy to leave the room."

An aggressive teenager, kicking against the world and struggling with puberty and raging emotions? No, this child had just turned 9.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email:

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