Teachers are not having it easy these days. Parents and government demand sharply improved results from schools while insisting-for idealistic or economic reasons-that children of all abilities must be taught together. Just think what will happen if the latest proposals to educate children with disabilities in normal classes ever take effect. Like most people, I have always found the idea of deliberate social exclusion repellent. I still do. But it is easy to be Utopian in theory. Since I began part-time teaching seven years ago, experience has driven out the untested faith I once had in David Blunkett-style social generosity.
It is well known that classes are harder to control than 20 to 30 years ago. Notions of social hierarchy have all but collapsed-a sign of the partial success of the classless society project perhaps, and of the diluting effects of cultural variety. Pupils do not always adapt their speech to talk to adults and they do not, with very rare exceptions, listen in silence-nor, without several promptings, do they get their books out and turn to page ten. I teach in the private sector, 6-12-year-olds, and some would say I was having things easy. All I can say is: come and try it. While teaching at an East London comprehensive recently, Gillian du Charme, headmistress of Benenden in Kent, was reduced to frog-marching pupils to their seats and shrieking: “Shut up!” She does not like shouting. None of us do. Alas, it is one of the methods teachers employ to spar for attention.
Yet-and you will have to take my word for it-work satisfaction is still possible. Teaching only turns to utter misery when real behavioural problems enter the school, transcending the ordinary rough and tumble of classroom life. A single disturbed child who refuses to work and constantly disrupts concentration is utterly destructive. Weak pupils play up and keen learners are justifiably upset; the mischief-maker enjoys the performance.
What does the teacher do? A disturbed child, or one with serious behavioural difficulties undermines the teacher’s authority. He or she can not be sent out unsupervised and may refuse to leave. Any physical action is illegal, even if the child is hostile and abusive. (Readers of The Times may recall that I have already run up against the law for smacking a child, and although the police were sympathetic, you don’t get two chances.)
In a bizarre recent episode in my classroom, a class and I carried on working from the board for 20 minutes while one pupil in the group dismantled his desk, using heaven knows what as a hammer. This absurdist play was memorable in more ways than one. I almost suffered a nervous breakdown trying not to react, and had to be soothed after class by sympathetic colleagues until I was in a fit state to go home.
This is not the sort of child targeted by Blunkett’s green paper offering up to 98,000 normal places to those presently in special schools. Blindness, for instance, David Blunkett’s personal experience, would be relatively easy to cater for, with financial help. But no resources can deal with the problem of the violent and the troubled, including some children blandly labelled as having attention deficiency syndrome (ADS).
This is not a party political matter. The Tories were just as ready to close down special units while sending out circulars warning teachers they were culpably insensitive to one in 20 children with ADS. The effects of this inclusion are already visible. Last year expulsions from state schools in England and Wales rose by 13 per cent.
Blunkett says that disruptive children admitted in error will be removed in time. But a wrong admission may mean that a class is upset for a year. Any new legislation should thus specify which disabilities are fit for inclusion. But in changing the logistics of education, we should also observe our children who, when they instinctively avoid a troublesome peer-and they certainly do-may cause that child more unhappiness than if he or she were educated elsewhere.
Teachers are in the classroom to teach, not to enact legislation which punishes the normal for their good fortune. I do not want to be part of this wrongheadedness, nor to see it happening around me. Private and state schools are not dissimilar in the problems they face, only in the means at their disposal. But including the disturbed may actually hinder that other enduring goal of social inclusion: to lessen the gap between state and private. State schools which are obliged to take in disruptive pupils will surely sink further in the iniquitous league tables (which do not reflect pupil origin). Private schools will protect themselves through selection. Think again, David Blunkett, before adding to the already large and conflicting demands on the teacher.