How to stop our children becoming the invisible pupils

Film-maker Roger Graef has spent three decades following schools in chaos. Here he explains why it happens - and how, with smaller classes, teachers and pupils could learn to cope
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In a large London comprehensive, the class was in chaos, but the teacher came to sit with us at the back of the room. "Please carry on," I urged. "Ignore us. We're just observers."

"It's alright," she said, smiling, as the noise and missiles gathered momentum. "This is French. They decided some weeks ago they didn't want to learn French, so I decided not to bother trying to teach them." I was shocked, but she seemed to think this was a reasonable arrangement. After all, the summer term was nearly over, and the pupils were demob happy.

The only person concentrating in the class was George, a small boy buried in his book, seemingly oblivious to the pandemonium. I asked him what he was reading. "Poetry," he said without looking up. What made this even more remarkable was that the poem in question had been assigned by his English teacher in the previous class - in which George had been the troublemaker, at the back, distracting those around him with his leaky pen.

And when we had asked the English teacher what she knew of George, all she said was "George?" Pause. "He truants." That a good, caring English teacher knew no more about him except his poor attendance record - this about a boy capable of reading poetry while his mates wreak havoc - was a clear signal we are missing the potential in too many of our forgotten pupils.

George proved even more interesting when we interviewed him away from school. He was raised by an indifferent single mum in Hackney, three bus rides from the school. He was always late even when he wanted to attend classes. But when he truanted, he still made the long journey and hid by the school until break when he joined his mates. I asked him why he truanted: "Don't like school," was the curt reply. "Why?" "It's boring." "Are there any subjects you like?" "Yes." Wait for it - you'll be surprised by his answer: George, the restless, troublemaking truant who reads poetry amid chaos - his favourite subject was maths.

Think of what someone spending more time with George could have achieved with him. He had the discipline and commitment to get himself up and cross London daily, and to choose what to engage with, despite his classmates running wild around him. But from the school's perspective, he was heading for trouble. If they expelled him, he'd be on the road to places where poetry and maths are in short supply - except to calculate quantities and prices for drugs and stolen goods.

That's not a joke. In three decades of filming and observing troublesome young people in schools, probation centres and prisons, I've been struck by their talent, energy and intelligence. Given the chance to do drama and music I've watched many blossom into stunning performers, as millions saw in the television prison musical Feltham Sings.

The scene with the French teacher and George took place in 1972. Thirty years later, we filmed the indiscipline faced by a supply teacher in a random selection of well-regarded schools in Britain. Many viewers were shocked by the chaos in the classrooms. But most teachers were not, as readers of the IoS series Inside Britain's Schools will know. Is it worse now? Probably, given the closure of special units for needy kids, the cuts on school psychologists. Above all, the extra pressures on teachers to hit targets restricts their face time with individual pupils - especially those demanding attention by their misbehaviour.

That's the key to change. You need dynamic leadership from the head to demand a collective agreement to learning in a controlled and quiet atmosphere. But school is also a single journey into unfamiliar and often fearful territory for every pupil. At a crucial and confusing time in their personal evolution, they enter this cauldron of noise, threats, challenges and opportunities for six hours a day. They are not "products" to be turned out on an assembly line, graded by exam results. They are a bundle of emotions, instincts and potential skills who need encouragement and attention above all for what they can and might do well, rather than for what they do badly. We know more about schools now. Crucially, huge strides have been made in addressing bullying. The use of trained peers as mediators, pioneered by Acland Burghley in Kentish Town, has been replicated successfully. Others, like primary schools in Plymouth dogged by vandalism and misbehaviour, have turned around by giving more authority to troublemakers.

I have seen many success stories in which disruptive youngsters settle down, but the lessons are always the same: they need to be engaged, inspired and helped through the inevitable crisis of self-confidence. This cannot happen when classes are too large for teachers to know each pupil well enough for them to feel noticed.

It will cost money to reduce class sizes but it will yield rewards on many fronts soon enough. The secret is trusting the young people to want the same outcomes as we do - whatever signals they may give out to the contrary.


We will conclude our series, Inside Britain's Schools, next week with a range of education experts, including the Government's new discipline tsar, Sir Alan Steer. We will also print a final selection of your views. Contact us by email at