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When the going gets tough . . .

... don't further hinder pupils by underestimating their potential, says Mark Edwards.

I remember a discussion I saw on TV back in the early Seventies in which Terry Casey, then president of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, made disparaging remarks about teachers who thought the home circumstances of children were relevant in assessing their ability to learn. I remember how scornful I was about his views. So why is it, that a quarter of a century later, I think he might have been right?

Well, not exactly. But when I taught supply last term in a couple of local schools, I noticed that many classes had significant numbers of children who were often off task, had poor listening skills, did not observe the agreed class rules and generally seemed to waste a lot of time.

I mentioned Mary's disruptive behaviour to the learning support assistant who knows the class well. "Ah, well, you see," came the reply, "her Mum's quite aggressive and she has a lot of different boyfriends. It's no wonder Mary's unsettled." "Oh, right," I said. "So it's a softly-softly approach thenI what about David?" "He's had it tough too. He's being assessed for ADHDI his father died when he was three."

"I seeI what about Chelsea? I can't get her to complete a single piece of work."

The assistant lowered her voice and adopted a concerned expression. "We've just heard that her grandmother is ill."

That was just the first day. Since then I have become familiar with the domestic circumstances of most of the children in this class and yes, some of them have it tough. As a result, teachers and assistants have low expectations of what they can achieve - in terms of work and behaviour - so don't make the kinds of demands on them that they might on children from stable, affluent, stress-free backgrounds.

Which is wrong. I thought education was supposed to be about empowering children and giving them a sense of purpose and control over their lives. But these children are learning from well-meaning adults that because their parents are divorced, they cannot be expected to achieve very much. It's a curiously antiquated frame of mind that sits uncomfortably with the statistics on family life at the start of the 21st century.

But what riles me most is that when I made some tentative enquiries about PSHE policy and, in particular, how circle time was being developed in the school, I received blank looks. No one had heard of it. These children desperately need practical support in learning how to manage powerful and negative emotions and yet are, beyond the occasional hug or time-out on a beanbag, being ignored.

Children thrive best in a challenging and supportive environment. We cannot change children's domestic circumstances and neither can they. But we can create the right environment - ideal home if you like - in the school. It may be their one oasis of calm in an otherwise chaotic existence. And it means behaviour that threatens or disrupts the learning of other children is a definite no-no.

It is essential for a school to provide the kind of environment that is a hallmark of stable family life - a balance of nurture and structure with clear expectations of work and behaviour. The right balance means that although there are consequences for infringements of the rules, emphasis is on teaching children how to listen, be still, calm themselves (a simple physical exercise that can be taught in two minutes is effective) and, most importantly, to understand that their feelings are valid.

It can be done, and some schools have proved it, as have individuals who have achieved success against the odds. But it may well involve a change of culture at whole-school level, and some, particularly the types who describe themselves as social workers rather than teachers, won't like it. Nor will those who have inherited our very British fear of anything to do with feelings.

They will have to lump it. Mary, David and Chelsea deserve better.

(All names have been changed.) Mark Edwards is an ex-headteacher who works at developing emotional literacy in schools

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