Dishing out fines won’t stop the chaos in class

27 April 2009
The Daily Telegraph
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There are riots, drugs and even death threats… and all our leaders offer are sticking-plasters

As a battle-hardened teacher, I can’t help but be a little cynical about the latest government initiative to quell indiscipline in our schools. A three-year study into classroom behaviour has called for teachers to be able to slap £50 penalties on the parents of pupils who persistently misbehave.

After spending 20 years working in various state schools, I’ve seen the whole gamut of bad behaviour. I’ve had pupils riot in my classroom, push all the furniture out of the room, blow cigarette smoke in my face, swear and spit at me; I’ve had them throw sharp objects at me, put ripped-up cans on my chair; I’ve had death threats, I’ve been sworn at and endured rudeness which the non-teaching public would find unendurable. And I’m not alone: having interviewed 10,000 teachers, the teaching union NASUWT found that, on average, teachers lose 50 minutes a day because of pupil misconduct – with one in five teachers losing as much as an hour and a quarter. The Government’s response is to admonish teachers – and, in the process, to ignore the real causes of the problem. Behind the unpleasant headlines, most experienced teachers know that social deprivation plays a massive role in misbehaviour. Poor children are three times more likely to be excluded from school, while only a tiny fraction of children in care leave with any qualifications.

Take Leon, a boy whom I taught for several years. His mother was a crack addict, who severely neglected him. Permanently angry, he hated lessons and did nothing but get into fights, swearing regularly at staff and dealing drugs in and out of school. I gave him numerous detentions, but they didn’t work – either he didn’t turn up, or used them to swear at me. He was fined for truancy, but his zonked-out mother ignored the invoices.

What worked best for Leon was helping him read and write on a one-to-one basis. He was pathetically grateful when he felt he was learning something important. Unfortunately, I had intervened too late: he was expelled when he stole a senior teacher’s car and laptop. He crashed the car into a tree after a chase with the police. The last I heard of him, he was in jail.

Leon would have benefited from a scheme like the one Save the Children has run for a few years, called “EAR to Listen”. This involves funding “advocates” for children, who liaise between home, school and any other agencies involved. Brent, for example, was a similar child to Leon, and on the verge of being permanently excluded. But he was given an advocate who helped his mother get treatment for her drug addiction. That meant Brent was much better treated at home, and so behaved much better at school. The programme has an 80 per cent success rate in improving behaviour. Save the Children estimates that targeting the most unruly pupils in the country would cost £8.5 million, as opposed to the £650 million it costs to deal with the fall-out from misbehaviour in our schools (excluded children are, among other things, 50 times more likely to go to jail than other pupils).

If we are going to sort out the chronic indiscipline in our schools, we need to address the root causes: family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction and social deprivation. Dishing out fines and detention won’t work. The Government must give our most deprived pupils one-to-one help in primary schools, and give its whole-hearted backing to charities like Save The Children. Our schools are being overwhelmed by chaos and our leaders are offering nothing more than pathetic sticking-plasters.

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