Too dangerous to teach

As the 1989 Elton Report on discipline in schools pointed out, disruptive incidents in the classroom are not isolated events. They are "influenced by a complex mixture of expectations, attitudes, regulations, policies and laws shaped by forces at work in the classroom, the school, the local community and society as a whole". But the most central of these influences, it said, is the relationship between teacher and pupils. When a teacher intervenes in unacceptable pupil behaviour, it is that relationship which largely determines success .

The attitude of teachers to the rising tide of classroom disruption is clearly important. The leadership of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has made its posture increasingly obvious through a series of highly-publicised disputes. Now delegates at the National Union of Teachers conference have resolved, as a last resort, to refuse to teach pupils they regard as dangerous. Many seemed to have voted more in sorrow than in anger, however, in a cry for help rather than a declaration of war.

The policy on indiscipline in schools endorsed by the NASUWT this week illustrates both the insights and the frustrations which produce daily dilemmas. The union is right to recognise that disproportionate amounts of time spent dealing with disruption by the few puts the education of the rest at unconscionable risk. And like Elton, it accepts that good discipline depends upon a number of vital ingredients.

Responsibility for some of these - the consistent application of agreed standards, recognition for good behaviour, appropriate teaching, respect for pupils - must rest largely with the teacher. Responsibility for other factors - coherent behaviour management policies, sanctions, help for children with special needs, support and respect for teachers - mainly rests elsewhere. But the NASUWT is disingenuous if it expects "the teacher's authority (to) be upheld by the headteacher, governing body and LEA" without question if that authority has not been exercised with due process.

It is easy to counsel professional perfection; the practical conditions faced by many teachers are far from perfect. The demand for special help for pupils outstrips the supply. The national curriculum makes it more difficult to tailor courses to particular interests and aptitudes. Too many homes are unsupportive. Cuts have increased class sizes while league tables and competition have introduced new imperatives.

There may be circumstances where the responsible professional view has to be that, in the conditions which prevail and the support available, a particular pupil cannot be taught in a particular class or school. But the NASUWT's attempt to create a distinction between children with special educational needs and those with "severe behavioural problems" is crass and unworkable and its attack on the idea of "inclusivity" a red herring. Few ever argued the absolute right of every child to a mainstream place; certainly the law does not allow this regardless of cost or efficiency. Nor do the union's recent battle honours bear out its argument. The refusal to exclude at Manton, Glaisdale, Hebburn and The Ridings hinged on the facts of the cases presented rather than doctrinaire policies.

Teachers' concerns about increased disruption are well-founded. Few of these will be directly addressed by the school discipline sections of the Education Act scrambled through in the dying days of the last Parliament. But there is now a requirement on all local authorities to publish their arrangements for children with behavioural difficulties - arrangements which will also be subject to the new Office for Standards in Education inspection of LEAs. This may encourage more to provide the support and advice to schools available in the minority of authorities which have bucked the recent trends and seen improvements in school behaviour management and a reduction in pupil exclusions.

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