Children behaving badly

British classes have become as difficult to teach as The Bash Street Kids. Pupils are disruptive, unruly and not interested in learning - and it's making teachers' lives a misery
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The Independent Online

A secondary school teacher says her pupils are rude, defiant and insolent. "They arrive in class in a relationship with each other, but not expecting to have any sort of relationship with me. Or they'll come in late, with all sorts of excuses for not having done their homework. They rarely turn up with a notebook, and often without pens. Sometimes they cross their arms and go into a sulk and say they're not going to bother doing whatever it is you're asking them to do. Or they'll say: 'Why should I?' They text under the table and when you say: 'Phones off', they immediately bristle. I've had people starting to eat their lunch in my lessons, bottles of Ribena squeezed so the juice comes out, sweets thrown around the room..."

A secondary school teacher says her pupils are rude, defiant and insolent. "They arrive in class in a relationship with each other, but not expecting to have any sort of relationship with me. Or they'll come in late, with all sorts of excuses for not having done their homework. They rarely turn up with a notebook, and often without pens. Sometimes they cross their arms and go into a sulk and say they're not going to bother doing whatever it is you're asking them to do. Or they'll say: 'Why should I?' They text under the table and when you say: 'Phones off', they immediately bristle. I've had people starting to eat their lunch in my lessons, bottles of Ribena squeezed so the juice comes out, sweets thrown around the room..."

This is no tough, inner-city comprehensive, but a tiny A-level politics class in a small independent school in the South-east of England. "There doesn't seem to be an accepted norm of good behaviour any more," says the teacher. "They don't seem to be there to learn. You have to be draconian from the word go, and very, very persistent with them."

Easter's teacher union conferences were full of talk of disruptive pupils. The National Union of Teachers voted to draw up a national charter of sanctions against unruly students - the first time it has addressed the issue of indiscipline this seriously.

Last month Ofsted inspectors highlighted the fact that standards of behaviour in secondary schools are declining, and that "low-level disruption" is a serious problem in at least 10 per cent of schools. Many parents would have assumed that the schools in question couldn't be the ones their children attend. But they would almost certainly have been wrong.

Bad behaviour is just as much a fact of life in grammar schools, the suburbs and private schools as it is in gritty urban comprehensives. According to teachers, parents do not have the first idea about how their children really behave.

When they find out, they are often shaken. One parent of a pupil at a well-known girls' private school in North London was appalled at how an A-level class treated their teacher. "This particular teacher was ineffectual, so they were having a laugh, getting her off the subject, vying to see who could be the wittiest. And they were learning nothing. These were bright, loud, fantastically self-confident girls who could dominate a room if they chose to, and were not in the slightest bit frightened of adults. That was what shocked me. It wasn't just one or two."

She wanted to take the problem to the head, but her daughter begged her not to, so instead she found herself paying out for a private tutor to keep her daughter on track, despite already spending £7,000 a year on school fees. Steve McCormack, who left full-time teaching to return to journalism partly because of classroom behaviour, says: "This is the great hidden secret of the English school system. All the schools I taught in were over-subscribed, but they were all facing the same problems. The rich kids from nice homes are just as prone to bad behaviour as the ones from bad homes. It's reflective of society in general, but teachers are at the sharp end of it. And it takes up more than half your energy and time dealing with it, when you should be expending 95 per cent of your energy on teaching your subject, and five per cent on the rest."

Neither is it possible to escape to rural calm. Alan Rutter, a primary school head and an NUT representative in Cumbria, says that despite his patch containing some of the smallest rural primary schools in the country, its teachers face the same problems. "It's that corrosive, constant, chipping away of structures in school."

The cost, in terms of lost teaching time and worn-out teachers, is high. A grammar school teacher in Birmingham says that it takes him twice as long to settle every class as it used to, which adds up to hours of lost teaching time every week, while an Association of Teachers and Lecturers representative in the south of England claims that his pupils openly challenge him when he's trying to enforce the rules. "They'll totally blank you, or they'll say: 'I'm not fucking doing that'. It goes on day in, day out, and it's extremely wearing."

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says: "The problem is that the standard of behaviour expected in schools is higher than elsewhere in society. We're supposed to be upholding the standards of the 1950s, while the rest of society is doing something entirely different." One head of maths at a high-achieving Essex comprehensive says that the problem is driving him to the end of his tether. "I came home today and I said: 'That's it. I'm throwing it in!'." Despite 18 years' experience, and the knowledge that he can usually get even the most difficult class to do what he wants, he finds himself in a constant battle. "This isn't a bad school. I have a daughter of secondary age and if we lived nearer I wouldn't worry about her going there at all. But it's the constant challenge, the total inability to accept responsibility if anything goes wrong. They'll do something, then they'll say: 'It wasn't me'. Or I'll say to someone: 'Will you sit down'. And they'll say: 'I am sitting down', and you'll say 'No, you're not'. And then they'll say: 'Well, I'm just going to!'. I don't think anyone outside schools can have a clue what it's like without seeing it for themselves."

Ofsted recommends good teaching, a relevant curriculum and more training in behaviour management as ways for schools to keep on top of the problem. But teachers are clear that the one thing they badly need, but are getting much less of, is parental support. "Parents frequently question the normal process of our behaviour policy," says Sue Kirkham, the head of Walton High School in Stafford. "I get maybe one or more letters a week asking why a child has been given a detention or whatever. It takes up hours of my time reading and responding to them, and gives the young person in question the impression that we are wrong in implementing our rules."

Roy Pike, the head of Torquay Boys Grammar School, agrees that parents are much quicker to defend their children and question the school's disciplinary code than in the past. But he also sees some pluses to today's challenging classroom manners.

"In the past, teachers would tell pupils to do things, and even if they were reluctant, they would usually do them. Today pupils and staff work together, and pupils generally appreciate that teachers are there to help them and give them a leg up. We've turned the culture from a battle into something much more collaborative." But, he adds, there are always "two, three or four" in every year group who don't buy into this, and who then cause problems.

TEACHERS' BUGBEARS

Twenty classroom behaviours that drive teachers crazy:

Talking

Whispering

Answering back

Arguing

Jeering

Questioning why they should do things

Blanking (looking at you with a blank stare)

Tuning out

Texting under the table

Turning up without pens and paper

Pushing past teachers

Shoving chairs and tables around

Fighting

Swearing

Chewing gum

Eating

Drinking

Keeping mobile phones on

Ostentatiously yawning

Sleeping

education@independent.co.uk

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