A killer in the classroom

29 April 2014
The Daily Telegraph
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Is it possible that violent and unruly children pose a bigger problem than schools dare admit?


Having taught for more than 20 years in various comprehensives, I can honestly say that there has been no more shocking news about the profession in the past couple of decades than the death of Anne Maguire, a teacher for more than 40 years at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds.

It brings back memories of the murder of Philip Lawrence, a courageous London headteacher who intervened in a fight in 1995, only to be stabbed to death. This killing is possibly even more shocking because it appears to have happened within a school, while Mr Lawrence died outside the school gates.

At this stage, it is impossible to know exactly what happened yesterday, but inevitably this case is going to raise a number of questions about the safety of our teachers and pupils. The most obvious is that there may well be calls for tighter security. In many inner-city schools in the US, there are metal detectors; should these be introduced into our schools, particularly ones that admit students who, possibly, are violent?

This, in turn, may lead to calls for pupils to be “profiled” and their records checked to see if they have a history of violent behaviour. But do we really want to go down this route, which would be a significant step towards turning our schools into prisons?

I am lucky to love the school in which I work. The behaviour of those I teach is exceptionally good. But I have taught in schools where some students have been very badly behaved. I have had missiles thrown at me, found ripped cans embedded in my chair, broken up fights between pupils, suffered verbal threats and, at times, feared for my safety.

When these incidents occurred, I largely suffered in silence because there was a culture in these schools that the teacher was to blame. In one school, I had managers say to me that I wasn’t making my lessons interesting enough and that this was why the behaviour was so bad.

This haunted me to the point where I would wake up sweating at night. I wanted to be a teacher, but I just felt I couldn’t operate properly. Like many teachers in these sorts of schools, I did my level best to get out: I played the game, pretended everything was hunky-dory to the senior management, got a good reference as a result, and departed. But, of course, this culture of secrecy and “covering up” wasn’t doing the teachers or the students any favours.

It is easy to understand why the school did this: they didn’t want it getting out that there was such chronic indiscipline. They wanted to present an entirely false image to the public that it was a great school. I should add that this wasn’t an inner-city school, but a large mixed comprehensive in a London suburb; I had done my time in an inner-city comprehensive, but actually found the behaviour was better there, even though the students were from much more deprived backgrounds.

There is nothing to indicate so far that what happened yesterday in Leeds was anything other than a terrible one-off incident in an otherwise peaceable school. But the incidence of violence in schools is undeniable and teachers have to be prepared to encounter it.

Last week, a survey of 31 police forces found that almost 1,000 pupils have been caught in the past three years with weapons including guns, a meat cleaver, axes and a cut-throat razor. Among them were 80 primary school children, the youngest of whom was an eight-year-old discovered to be carrying a knife to school in Scotland. Altogether, 249 knives were found over the three-year period.

In 2011-12, 550 pupils were expelled from English state schools for assaulting an adult – usually a teacher or classroom assistant – and 16,970 suspensions were handed out.

The figures were down slightly on the previous two years, but academics claim that levels of indiscipline in schools may have been “seriously underestimated” for many years. A study earlier this month from East Anglia University warned that bad behaviour was being deliberately depressed because of the pressure to satisfy inspectors and keep expulsion rates down. The research said figures from Ofsted showing that behaviour was good or outstanding in 92 per cent of schools were “misleading” and “may seriously underestimate the extent to which a poor classroom climate limits pupil achievement”.

In my experience, the crucial point in getting children to behave well is that teachers need to be open with each other about what is going on in their lessons and they must feel they can get help. It is for this reason that I don’t think the solution to poor discipline is to call in the “heavy brigade”: security guards, metal detectors and CCTV. This just alienates the majority of children, who are largely well behaved.

So what really goes wrong? Why do some students sometimes completely “lose it”? I have found that you can divide badly behaved students into three categories: the yobs, the crooks and the psychos.

The “yobs” are the commonest. These are pupils who love the whole performance of being badly behaved: who claim status among their peers by humiliating the teacher. They often act in groups, but there will always be a leader, usually someone who is both charismatic and alienated for some reason or other: either they aren’t good at the work or they are bullies.

Over the years, I’ve found it is best to charm the “leader”: to build a relationship with him or her, and get them on your side, make them feel that they can succeed and that you value them. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but with work and careful strategic thinking, you can get them working.

The crooks generally are not that “visible” in the sense that you may not immediately notice that they are behaving badly: they are criminals and want to get away with their crimes. They know the worst thing they can do is show the world what they are doing. But they may well be doing bad stuff: stealing things, dealing drugs, cheating at their work, threatening people in secret, perhaps threatening you without you knowing it. The anonymous note or comment on the internet can really intimidate.

Finally, the rarest of these is the “psychotic”. This is the trickiest and most terrifying person to deal with because they don’t listen to reason and they are often very unpredictable in their behaviour. In my estimation, I’ve only encountered a couple of them in my career, but dealing with them was, quite frankly, terrifying because I felt that I just didn’t know what they were going to do.

I can remember one incident where I asked John, aged 15, to leave the room because he was smashing another student on the shoulder. He turned to me in fury and refused to go. I was young then, and didn’t know what to do. I shouted at him and he started yelling at me that he was going to kill me. But then, mercifully, he stormed out of the classroom, kicking an empty chair over as he left. After quite a bit of paperwork, he was excluded from school, and then dropped out. But I can still remember the stony rage in his eyes.

But this, one has to remember, was a “one-off” and possibly my interpretation of his psychology was wrong – though I was later to learn that this child was known by the authorities to have a history of violence. If there had been a more open culture in that school – it was the one that specialised in covering up its failings – then perhaps the child could have been dealt with in a more constructive way.

I think it’s no coincidence that this incident happened in a class that I was preparing for a high- stakes GCSE English exam. The pressures on children and teachers to get good results in exams can exacerbate poor behaviour and create a very tense atmosphere in classes.

If we are really going to solve the problem of poor behaviour in our schools, we need to think very carefully about a whole host of issues and give teachers the freedom to speak honestly about the bad behaviour they’re enduring in their classes without them feeling they are to blame.

In the meantime, the only appropriate act today is to mourn Anne Maguire, a fine and much-loved teacher whom generations of pupils will remember as a powerful force for good.

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