The beasts of the blackboard jungle

Problems such as bullying are brushed aside. Advice to pupils is always, ultimately, `get a grip'
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SCHOOL TERM will shortly be beginning, so now is probably an opportune moment to discuss just how much teachers hate kids. For every hopeful fresh out of training college with a copy of To Sir with Love in their back pocket and a sunny smile on their face, there's a demented fiend who regards the classroom as a battleground packed with under-age verbal terrorists, and lunch-time detentions as heavy artillery.

Schools have always sold themselves on their ability to absorb every kind of student easily - different races, different abilities, different interests; all are catered for and treated as individuals. They're the place people of all levels can go to learn about life and receive all the encouragement, training and guidance they need. Schools claim positively to welcome students who are music- or sports-oriented, rather than just academic, and promise to groom "exceptionally" bright pupils for later career brilliance.

Some institutions do indeed strike such a balance and every year release happy, well adjusted individuals into society clutching hockey trophies and a range of high-grade exam results.

But the vast majority of schools - especially those with a reputation for great university entrance success or league table supremacy to uphold - are run like high-security prisons, with staff constantly on the look- out for even the most petty violations of the rule book. They think it teaches pupils respect for authority or instils discipline, but the only thing it upholds is a great tradition of sadism.

All that ultimately matters to headteachers are the pass/fail figures, the school's standing in the eyes of the board of governors, and raising enough revenue to construct some lovely new biology labs to overlook the lacrosse courts. Perhaps schools should funnel a little more cash into reviewing how pupils are actually treated during their school years?

There is no attempt on the part of senior teachers to incorporate a system of student respect into school life; to understand things from a pupil's point of view, and perhaps use something like counselling to get beneath the behaviour of certain "troublemakers". All too often, staff will hand out detention slips and threats to parents as a way of keeping the peace and quashing any dissent. Even non-behavioural problems such as bullying, anorexia and simple stress at a heavy workload are brushed aside or ignored as pleas for attention from students who can't hack the pace. Advice to pupils is always, ultimately, to "get a grip".

There are always some who simply fall too far out of favour or tolerance. A report by Southampton University researchers shows that nearly 70 per cent of students expelled from school go on to lead lives of crime, with a conviction before the age of 23. Obviously, we're not in the midst of an epidemic of expulsions, creating a generation of disaffected young folk, but suspension and permanent exclusion are continually used by teachers to keep students in line.

Even the most liberal school must be organised hierarchically in order to function, I suppose, but such an organisation is almost automatically right-wing in its ethos. My (private) secondary school was proudly, righteously conservative, and although it boasted a wealth of young, liberal teachers, the people in the crucial posts were desperately small-minded. The prevailing attitude in such schools is that dissidents and insurgents must be weeded out, offenders are given no second chance, and any student who's called in for a warning lecture has to endure a tongue-lashing that inevitably ends with the words, "You're no more special than anybody else in this school."

The report also makes extremely scathing comments about the treatment of expelled youths in "exclusion units", educational institutions attended by those who've been dropped from school. Apparently these places are simply holding-tanks, with no option of remedial action to dispel any bad attitudes towards authority. Back at the school, at the moment of expulsion there's a sense of positive enjoyment in ruining a student's future at just 16 or younger, and no thought for the consequences. Suspension and expulsion threats are even backed up with hints that a student's future may not be too rosy, what with the bad references and all.

Schools, especially conservative-minded ones, are terrified of their kids staging a sort of peasant uprising and have no sense of humour about even the faintest ripple of illegitimate excitement among the students. God forbid that a little bit of teen rebellion or backchat may be exactly that: the irritating but really harmless and natural demonstration of basic adolescent bravado.