`I had two mad children to deal with'

Disruptive behaviour in the classroom is on the rise - and starting ever earlier. Many teachers are throwing in the towel.
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WHEN JOE was upset, he threw chairs around the classroom. "He would just go up to children and punch them in the stomach," recalls his teacher. Paul was nearby. "He would never sit down. He would rip up other children's work. He would run off whenever he could. He was also smelly, so other children made fun of him. Basically, I had two mad children to deal with."

These were just two eight-year-olds in a London junior school, among 28 others in whom this teacher tried to instil the basics. She has given up teaching now. She became so depressed at having to struggle to maintain order, never mind teach, and disillusioned that she could do so little for Joe or Paul.

"It was believed that Joe had been sexually abused in strange circumstances," she recalls. "His mother was into black magic. Paul's mother was a drug addict in and out of prison. There was a suspicion that his stepfather had been abusing him. I finally got both of them "statemented" which meant that they would get some external expert help. By that time they had already been in the school for four years."

Such tales of hellish classes are increasingly common, in both junior and secondary schools. This week they have been much discussed at the various teachers' conferences during the Easter holidays. The whole country seems to be affected.

In Cleveland one class has been banned from playing football against other schools, after throwing stones at their opponents. In Newcastle, a pupil aimed a firework at a teacher's car, just missing her. In Nottingham, a teacher recalls an incident that was particularly dangerous for a colleague. "He was doing supply, filling in for the day at a secondary school. He asked the class to do their work and every other word from them was a swear word. `I'm not effing doing that,' they said. So there was no way he was going to get any work out of them. At the end of the day, he asked them to put their chairs on their desks for the cleaners. Next thing, he found all the desks had been pushed forward and all the chairs collapsed around him. He could have been badly injured."

These stories are not confined to difficult inner city areas. Jon Payne, a former civil servant, has spent the past year working as a supply English teacher in affluent parts of Berkshire and Hampshire. "I came across a complete lack of respect for you as an individual. I had worked in the independent sector, where it was possible to teach rather than simply maintain order. I had also taught in the poorer parts of Hartlepool, where you might expect there to be problems. Yet even though those areas were depressed, children seemed better behaved. In the past year, though, I have noticed an incredible deterioration in standards and general lack of discipline. It is a problem that really makes me question whether I should stay on as a teacher."

The most surprising aspect of the problem is the number of children who are disruptive at junior level, yet their cases receive little special attention. Here, a teacher speaks of her probationary year at a junior school in Suffolk. "I had one little boy who would sit under the table biting children's legs. It took a long time to get him under control. Another boy would sit in the corner, making high-pitched noises. Another was an obsessive compulsive, who insisted on opening and shutting the door and would occasionally get very angry and punch people.

"This was a mainstream class of eight- and nine-year-olds. They needed much more input than I could offer. They needed one-to-one teaching and access to a psychologist, but they did not get that help, so the whole class suffered."

An inner London teacher, who has also dropped out, speaks of her distress at needy younger children missing out on the skilled support they require: "One child threw chairs around the class. I discovered that his parents' marriage had split up, but they were still living near each other and the father was very violent. It was the only behaviour he knew. I counselled the child in my break times and after school, but there are so many children needing this type of help, you cannot afford to do it for long. In the same class, one pupil beat his own hands so hard into the wall that they bled.

"It took me two years to get this class properly under control. But, after I left, everything fell to pieces. It was either because the new teachers did not have the control skills, or because there was not enough professional support."

There are solutions both in terms of better discipline and expert psychological support. Many London teachers, for example, sing the praises of the Tavistock Clinic, which specialises in child psychotherapy. "An expert can assess a child and then go back to the teacher and explain the root of the problems and how best to approach the child. But it is so hard to get a referral," says one London teacher. A governor of a London junior school explains: "We really value help from the Tavistock, but at a time when our numbers are doubling, we have had to halve the budget for such services."

Getting help, even if there is money, can also be painfully slow. "A large file of documentation is usually required, which means that a problem is often very advanced before anything is done," explains the former head of modern languages at a London comprehensive. "I know of a student who is a Zairean refugee. She witnessed a third of her family being shot. She has had no grief counselling. She is very insecure having arrived in Britain under the label `asylum seeker'. She has had nothing done for her. She is in class and, in truth, she is off her head."

The problems will not be solved, solely by psychological support. All of these teachers spoke of failure at the top of schools to implement coherent, well-structured disciplinary procedures. They talked of feeling abandoned by headteachers and senior staff when dealing with disruptive pupils, so that in the end expulsion was the only option. They commented on how different life could be, highlighting schools with strong heads, where good support from year heads and form tutors has nipped many problems in the bud.

"It is very demoralising and distressing," says the former head of modern languages. "I remember a girl throwing a box of books against a wall, and having to warn the others to duck. They could have been seriously injured. The girl was eventually permanently excluded. We discovered she had been abused. However, by the time she was excluded, the mental scarring was so deep, she could not function in a school. No one picked her problems up. No one wanted to pick them up. These days, we have not got time."

Names have been changed to disguise identities