Reports of increasing violence and bad behaviour in schools are routine in the media. But when I spent a year observing an outer London comprehensive, I found a surprisingly ordered environmentby Fran Abrams / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
It is 9.40am at Seven Kings high school in Ilford, and a teacher is struggling to get a class of 16 year olds to pay attention. “Jamil,” she says, “I asked you to stop talking.”
She waits a few seconds, but Jamil doesn’t respond. He’s slouching in his chair, not meeting her eye. Her expression hardens. “Move it,” she says, pointing to a seat on the far side of the room away from his friends.
Jamil looks up, defiant. “I wasn’t talking, man!”
“Move, Jamil!” she says, keeping her voice low.
Slowly he stands up. Pushes back his chair, which falls over with a clatter. He doesn’t stoop to pick it up, and ambles towards the seat she’s indicated. A few minutes later he’s got his head down, writing.
It could be just another minor skirmish in the long drawn-out conflict that is comprehensive education in Britain today. Indeed, why bother to mention it?
I mention it with good reason. In almost a year of following the life of an urban comprehensive school, this is the worst piece of behaviour I witnessed—the only incident in which a pupil showed open, angry resistance to a teacher’s command.
Two years ago in Prospect (“Bollocks to that, sir,” September 2003) a former teacher, James McLeod, described a classroom world in which pupils were often out of control and in which teachers shrank from confrontation with them. It contrasts sharply with the warm, safe, ordered environment in which I have spent a lot of time in the last academic year.
The contents of McLeod’s article would not have surprised anyone who has read recent newspaper articles on the subject or watched television exposés such as Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, in which an undercover reporter filmed scenes of chaos.
In a recent survey of 2,500 teachers commissioned by the National Union of Teachers, almost a third of respondents said they suffered some form of physical assault at least once a year. A further third reported being threatened by pupils, and a quarter said they received threats from parents.
As with the wider issues of law and order, bad behaviour in schools is politically sensitive. Or to be more precise, to be seen as soft on it is a vote-loser. In this parallel world of knives, hoodies and foul language, in which children have been led astray by a hedonistic and violent popular culture, the…