Women have a right to be respected in the classroom

As the former principal of a successful secondary school (for children aged 11-18) where 95 per cent of students are drawn from Asian backgrounds, I was intrigued by and am well aware of our colleague's concern ("Students who refuse to respect women", What keeps me awake at night, 24 May).

It was good to see that male teachers have intervened but the feedback that "these students are simply not accustomed to being told what to do by a woman" is frankly not acceptable. Even more unacceptable is the notion that "political correctness means the school is reluctant to address the problem directly".

Good schools work because of an understanding between students, parents and staff that students will cooperate in their social and learning behaviour, and that staff will do their best for students in terms of sustaining a positive and supportive learning environment. This morally binding principle is fundamental to the behaviour of all, irrespective of students' family and cultural backgrounds.

It is also common to all the great world faiths, often expressed as analogous to the parent-child relationship. In Islam, for example, the ideal is that a teacher should be given the same respect that is due to a parent, with, of course, the corollary that the teacher has an obligation to act as a "wise parent". Most Muslim students are aware of the above because it is taught in the madrasa (a college for Islamic instruction). This is why some students are "incredibly respectful" and others are better motivated when there is a "threat" to involve parents.

To conclude with some positive suggestions: first, there is nothing culturally sensitive in engaging with parents when a student is not cooperating. Focus on the behaviour, not the cultural attitude from which it may or may not arise, and employ the usual sanctions. Never just "threaten" - make the consequence of non-cooperation clear and stand by it.

Second, sustaining good behaviour is part of the partnership between teachers and parents - surely this issue can be shared in confidence between senior colleagues and parent governors or community leaders from similar backgrounds? The point is that these students are inhibiting their own achievement and that of others.

Third, use the dialogue to gain insights into the ideals and teachings of the relevant faith backgrounds so that these "naughty boys" cannot pull the wool over your eyes.

Finally, a reminder that true discipline comes from within and arises when students learn for themselves the benefits of good behaviour by being habituated to it and rewarded for it - and yes, I am well aware that not all behaviour issues are simple or straightforward. Best of luck.

Cecil Knight, Former headteacher, Solihull, West Midlands, England.

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