Headteachers' attempts to discipline violent and disruptive pupils are being undermined by parents who often sanction such behaviour and side with their children if the school tries to punish them.
Members of the Secondary Heads Association working in some of the most deprived areas of Britain say they can no longer expect to be seen as figures of authority either by children or their parents. One said a mother was not surprised to hear that her daughter had been in a fight because she herself, when provoked, often "clocked" people.
Reprimanding children for foul language can be hopeless especially when parents, even in discussion with a head, think nothing of punctuating their sentences with expletives. "In the past if children swore, even under their breath, and you glared at them, they lowered their eyes. Nowadays children don't lower their eyes," said the head of a school in Hampshire, hardly an area of inner-city deprivation. Another head found herself on the receiving end of abuse from the mother of a child who had been badly beaten at school. Her complaint was that the school's anti-violence ethos was to blame for her son not defending himself.
Teachers say they are becoming increasingly embroiled in family disputes and inter-estate feuds which spill into the classroom.The head of a Midlands school said "There are children in my school who come from some of the most violent families on the nearby estates. I had to telephone the police recently because of an incident. Once they realised who was involved they said I'd have to wait until they got reinforcements." Another head said: "You come across the most horrific instances of child abuse. Members of my staff are having to appear in court cases and are finding it extremely stressful. We are having to deal with poverty and the disintegration of the family at the sharp end. Social services are stretched to the limit and we find ourselves having to pick up the problems."
John Sutton, general secretary of the SHA, said that the number of sanctions available to schools were few. A recent circular from the Department for Education warned heads not to detain children against the wishes of their parents. And, he added, it was becoming commonplace for children to defy teachers' punishments with the support of their parents.
Pat Collings, head of Sinfin Community School in Derby, is concerned about the plight of many urban schools and the lack of parental support heads are receiving. She said: "At one time, on entering school, pupils realised that they had to abide by the school's ethos. But now children are refusing to accept the authority of the school.
"These children have been brought up in a society which promotes individualism and materialism and their parents show their love by buying them videos and computer games. They are anti-government, anti-police and now are becoming anti-teachers. When violence has become a normal part of daily life, they are not going to be interested in middle-class teachers telling them how to behave."
While teachers were keen to have their grievances aired, all said they preferred to be anonymous because league tables and increased competition meant that "problem schools" faced a downward spiral with parents moving their children elsewhere, thus reducing the school's funding. John Dunford, SHA's incoming president, said he would be pursuing the plight of urban schools and had already made some of the issues known to Mrs Shephard.