'Worst pupils in the world'

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Teachers need more help so that they can cope with bad behaviour, reports Jon Slater

British schoolchildren are probably the worst behaved in the world and teachers lack the skills to impose their authority on them, a leading psychologist has said.

Schools fail to tackle the underlying causes of bad behaviour, choosing instead to introduce policies reacting to the behaviour by rewarding good pupils while penalising poor discipline, he said.

These provide teachers with the "illusion of progress" but do not ensure that pupils are engaged in their learning.

Professor Joe Elliott, chair of educational psychology at the University of Sunderland, said that his own experience of visiting other countries suggested that UK pupils are "probably the worst behaved in the world".

Studies have shown that peer groups in the UK are far more likely to reinforce negative behaviour than those in other countries, such as Russia.

Even teachers from the United States who visited Britain were shocked by standards of behaviour, he said.

Professor Elliott acknowledged that keeping discipline while explaining subject matter placed a large demand on teachers, especially when they are tired. Pupils, he said, will make matters worse by deliberately attempting to overload a teacher they suspect of weakness in an effort to take control of the class.

But too often teachers raised their voices to keep control when eye contact or a quiet word would earn them more long-term authority.

Professor Elliott, who will shortly take up a similar role at Durham university, was speaking at the annual British Psychological Society division of educational and child psychology conference in Paris.

"Teachers find it shameful to admit to colleagues they cannot handle a six-year-old," he said. "We have a value system that emphasises individualism and choice but once they enter the classroom, we want children to behave immediately. There is a massive conflict between the messages children get from society and the behaviour we expect of them in school."

Professor Elliott said his own experience showed that there were skills teachers can learn to improve discipline in the classroom. He admitted that as a teacher in a girls' secure unit he had been sick every morning before work because of his inability to impose discipline.

Eventually, however, he learnt the skills necessary to make his job bearable. These include constant awareness of what is going on in all parts of the classroom, and control of facial expressions and voice intonation and pitch.

Senior teachers are often unable to name specific skills they use to keep order in class. This means that newly-qualified teachers do not receive the support they need to impose discipline.

He called for educational psychologists to spend less time dealing with "problem" pupils and to use the time to educate teachers about interpersonal skills which will improve discipline.

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