The young are not small adults

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Something seems to be going badly wrong in children's behaviour. Every week brings more accounts of assaults on teachers. Arson attacks on schools are an almost daily occurrence. Pupils as young as four are being expelled because teachers cannot cope with their tantrums and violence.

The National Association of Head Teachers last year complained that "the decline in standards of pupil behaviour and the growth in aggression is getting out of hand." Permanent exclusions from school have increased threefold since 1991.

The political parties seem at a loss as to what to do. The Government seems preoccupied with the technicalities of exclusion and is hoping that replacing the 15-days-a-term limit with 45 days a year will reduce the need for actual expulsions. The Labour party is putting its faith in units within schools to which youngsters can be sent to cool off and receive specialist help.

At best, however, these proposals are only palliatives. Something seems fundamentally amiss. If I had to put my finger on what it is, I would say that our view of childhood has drifted too far from reality.

People are difficult to understand. The only way even psychologists are able to get a handle on what it is to be human is through metaphors. Our current metaphor of the child, embodied to some extent in the Children Act, is that he or she is a miniature adult capable of rationally calculating the profit and loss of what they do.

But that is to ignore the developmental aspect of becoming human. Initially a child is virtually pure biology driven towards the satisfaction of certain basic needs. It is only later, as the perceptual system develops, that the way a person experiences those energies is transformed. Freud memorably pictured it as a struggle between the id and the developing super ego, refereed by an emerging sense of self.

One does not have to be a Freudian to recognise that something elemental is being glimpsed. Theology gives it expression as "original sin". Even Eysenck, Freud's arch-critic, wonders how we get people to behave so well when it would be natural for them to behave badly and suggests that it is through a conscience acquired by conditioning.

We are not born human, we become human. Parents are the cornerstones of that process but teachers also have a vital part to play. However, if they are to act as the civilising agents of society, they must have the tools to do the job.

Teachers have always been convenient authority figures against which to rebel. But too often these days a teacher seeking to remonstrate is met with "Why should I, you can't do anything to me". In terms of a street culture where respect is gained through force, teachers are seen as literally powerless. In extreme cases, if a recent television programme is to be believed, the taunting of teachers can be taken as far as defecating in their desks.

Curiously, teacher unions took a leading part in the enfeeblement of the profession. Tacitly accepting the metaphor of the child as a smaller version of an adult, they put their weight behind the view that pupils' behaviour should be shaped exclusively through reasoning.

A whole panoply of possible sanctions, from the cane downwards, came to be regarded as unethical and ineffective. As the notion of children's rights took hold, teachers came to be afraid even to touch or detain them.

We are all - but particularly teachers - now suffering the consequences of adopting that inappropriate metaphor. The only response left to a school when confronted with extreme indiscipline seems to be to expel the child. This is hardly likely to be effective when more often that not the child does not want to be there anyway. But neither is the child being helped, and society is simply stocking up problems for itself. When schools have been compelled to take back excluded pupils, some teachers feel the only course of action open to them is to refuse to teach the child and threaten to strike.

It is, as the NAHT said, getting out of hand. What is to be done? I have no panacea, but an obvious starting point is to review our conceptions of childhood and adolescence. We need to develop a differentiated picture which takes into account biology and irrationality as well as reason, that individuals are not only drawn forward by future plans but are driven by what has happened to them, and that a young person's organising principles, values if you like, are only partly formed and loosely attached. Consistent and sensible behaviour cannot therefore simply be negotiated.

We as a society need to make it clear to teachers what part we expect them to play in civilising our young. We must also make sure that they have a sufficient repertoire of rewards and sanctions, clearly related to a developmental metaphor, to enable them to achieve what is expected.

A three-phase programme of clarifying the conceptions, setting clear expectations for teachers and providing the means would take us considerably forward from where we are now.

It is a complex but urgent problem. What we call civilisation is but a veneer on our primitive aggressive and sexual instincts. The increased incidence of road rage, rape, street violence and theft indicates that the coat is cracking. If it is not to split completely we must empower teachers to educate our young into humanness.

Alan Smithers is director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University.

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