Give me more powers and I’ll stop my pupils fighting

10 June 2009
The Times and The Sunday Times
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Tony, a little boy in an oversized uniform, was trembling at the back of the playground. As I approached I could see why. He had fresh bruises on his face and little knife cuts on the back of his hand. At the far corner of the playground, I saw John, a large boy of 13 hovering, watching Tony and me closely. I asked Tony whether he was being picked on. His arm looked like someone had cut him with a knife. With a look of anxiety on his face, Tony denied this.

Wondering why John was hovering so circumspectly, I asked to look in his bag. He refused point-blank. I retreated, knowing that I didn’t have the power to do anything. I decided to fill in a report to Tony’s Year Head instead, voicing my suspicions. It was all I could do in the circumstances. A couple of hours later, John’s father phoned to complain that I had been wanting to look through his “private possessions”.

Thankfully, new powers that came into force just yesterday will give teachers like me the legal right to search pupils if they suspect they may have a weapon. Characters like John will no longer be able to bully kids with knives and get away with it, parents like his father will no longer be able to complain. Teachers will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that for once the Government has given them a little more power to impose order in our chaotic secondary schools.

The statistics show that many schools are frenzied places. A recent report by the schools’ inspectorate reporting declining standards of behaviour in secondary schools – a third of lessons are ruined by poor behaviour.

Last year the police had to be called a number of times to avert riots at my local secondary school; one parent told me that her 15-year-old son carried a knife to school for self-defence. She, and many other parents like her throughout the country, are now grateful that the school has the power to search pupils thoroughly – with metal detectors – before they enter the premises. Finally, the school will become a safer place.

But how did we get into this sorry state where schools have to waste precious resources and time on simply checking that pupils are not carrying weapons? Ironically, the law has undoubtedly played a big role in the breakdown of order. With its focus upon children’s rights, it appears to have thrown the pupil out with the bath water. Perhaps most significantly, corporal punishment was made illegal in 1986, with teachers being stripped of many other sanctions that they used to apply. For example, we can’t detain a pupil for more than 20 minutes after school without giving 24 hours’ written notice to a pupil’s parent.

When I first started teaching in a tough comprehensive in the East End in the early 1990s, quite a few teachers would clip miscreants around the ear and expect them to behave. Generally, it worked because the pupils then weren’t fully aware that they could get their teacher sacked for doing this. Being a naive young teacher, I used this technique on a few occasions but I came unstuck when a pupil complained. Luckily, the matter was sorted out amicably – but I have never so much as touched a pupil from that day onwards.

I know that this has been to the detriment of my pupils. In particular, I have never physically attempted to break up fights between pupils or get between them – what if the pupil accuses you of assaulting them rather than stopping the fight? In April this year the law changed and now allows teachers to “use reasonable force” when restraining pupils from fighting or misbehaving.

But the law remains murky: in particular, the Human Rights Act means that children can still sue or sack teachers if they feel their “privacy, dignity and physical integrity” has been compromised. One colleague of mine was suspended for a year before being reinstated after an allegation that he had hit a child while stopping a fight was proved to be false. Often headteachers and governing bodies take the side of the pupils if there are a number of pupils saying that you are in the wrong. It’s not worth the hassle. You’re far better off letting the pupils beat the hell out of each other than intervening.

Much of the time the teacher is not, however, the target of disruption: it’s bullying and squabbling among a peer group that causes the worst problems, because disagreements can rumble on for weeks, months, years, erupting without warning in classrooms and playgrounds. The internet and mobile phones have aggravated the situation: now a nasty rumour, an embarrassing photo, a cutting remark can be spread around about a pupil within seconds and everyone knows about it. Within this climate, pupils seek revenge. Seven teenagers were murdered in London this year essentially over very trivial remarks: it appeared that they “dissed” or disrespected the wrong people.

The truth is that in huge schools teachers are overwhelmed by numbers. Pupil behaviour is much better in primary schools. This isn’t simply because the children are younger, it’s also because the schools are smaller and teachers are better able to form proper relationships with their pupils. A survey in April showed that temporary exclusions are running at nearly 10 per cent of pupils in secondary schools with more than 1,000 pupils, compared with 3 per cent in those with 1,000 or fewer children. We need to look at ways of making schools more “human-sized”.

Simply giving teachers the legal right to search pupils for weapons isn’t enough. We need to break up our larger schools into smaller, more manageable units. Above all, we must tighten the law even further so that teachers know they won’t be sued or sacked if they physically stop fights or challenge misbehaviour that blights Britain’s secondary schools.

Francis Gilbert is a teacher in a comprehensive in Outer London and author of The New School Rule

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