As a teacher in the 1980s I was assaulted and threatened by pupils and parents. In the most serious incident, I was attacked with a bicycle chain by an ex-pupil inside the school – a boy I had never taught. In all cases there was, thankfully, no injury to me or any of the pupils in my care. The tragic case of Anne Maguire is unique in this country, a dedicated teacher attacked and killed in a school by a pupil. But we must take care in the aftermath not to drive a wedge between pupils, teachers and parents. This dynamic relationship is the key to behaviour in schools.
The recent report from the University of East Anglia which showed behaviour as a major, underreported issue generated many headlines. Other reports of 1,000 children being caught carrying ‘weapons’ in schools, some as young as 8 years old, resulted in an outcry. Without diminishing the tragedy that occurred in Leeds, we must however reflect on behaviour in schools with some sense of perspective and context. There are 8.2 million children attending schools every day. The figure of 1,000 caught carrying weapons in the past three years, while shocking, needs to be unpicked a little. The actual number reported was 981 (rounded up to 1,000 for media purposes). This was just for one police area in the West Midlands, but for this to be a major issue the actual national figure would have to be many times higher. The weapons reported included knives, a machete, razors, a stun gun and an axe – again all shocking. But we must think about what constitutes a weapon – a knife taken from the school canteen? A penknife on a keychain? A letter opener? Without details and context figures on their own can easily be misinterpreted. There’s no excuse for a machete, axe, razor or stun gun and it’s impossible to explain away why a pupil was carrying such an implement in a school.
Of the 981 pupils caught with weapons 329 were charged with having an offensive weapon 0.004% of the pupil population. The issue now is not about the proliferation of ‘weapons’ being carried by children in school, but ensuring that media hype does not demonise young people. Some media reports are already stirring controversy by saying that this tragic incident has now started a ‘national debate’ on security in schools. Calls for airport style metal detectors to screen pupils have been made by some. It is this type of sensationalism which clouds reality and threatens to turn a one-off tragic incident into a wedge driven between teachers, pupils and parents.
The key to discipline in schools lies in the relationship between staff and their leadership and the school and its parents. Teachers must build effective relationships with pupils and as the professionals charged with being ‘in loco parentis’ they must also have the support and backing of parents when it comes to enforcing discipline. Teachers and parents must also trust in the senior leaders of the school to provide backing and support in enforcing the discipline policy.
Bad behaviour in the classroom is not the ‘fault’ of the teacher. A teacher cannot be wholly responsible for the way in which pupils act or react in lessons. There has to be collective responsibility. Being bored in class, often used as an excuse for bad behaviour, is no excuse for the pupils either. Sometimes work is boring, yet necessary. School is not a circus with teachers as performers out to entertain all day every day. Teachers will make things interesting, fun even, when they can, but the job of the teacher is to teach, the job of the pupil is to learn.
When there is a strong, healthy partnership between home and school, bad behaviour can be tackled and solved. It cannot be solved through airport style security screening or American style lockdowns. No teacher I know wishes to work in fear of the pupils, the parents or the senior leaders of schools. Building that partnership is the key to prevention, not just of teacher assaults, but also the much bigger issue of pupils assaulting each other outside the school gates, sometimes with deadly consequences.
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