Steve McCormack: Why are we producing such unteachables?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It might not hit the ratings heights of Jamie's School Dinners, but Channel 4's The Unteachables is captivating television. The mix of conflict, tension and raw emotion, delivered by characters who arouse sympathy and revulsion in equal measure, is a potent formula. And the storylines, with more changes of direction than a Turkey Twizzler, ensure the viewer's continued attention.

Is this more than a piece of theatre, starring a hand-picked selection of figures from central casting? I'd argue that, yes, it is much more. Because for an hour on our screens every Tuesday evening, we see something that should concern us far more than Jamie Oliver's romp through various school canteens.

That is because the teenagers bussed off to study camp in Kent are not particularly exceptional. Their behaviour may put them towards one end of a scale, but the point is that the adolescents sulking, effing and charming, their way through these programmes represent a large slice of the school-age population.

Dealing with this type of behaviour is part of the daily diet of teachers in hundreds of schools. Occasionally it is worse and, more often, it is not quite so in-your-face. But the common elements are widespread. These are the persistent challenging of teachers' authority, the hostile and sometimes aggressive resistance to being told what to do, and the casual way direct or throwaway offensive remarks are aimed at teachers.

Schools where this type of behaviour is very rare are in the minority. Every credible survey of teachers paints the same picture. In the most recent research, the union asked a cross-section of newly qualified teachers about their experiences. Two thirds reported "persistent verbal aggression" in the classroom. That makes a mockery of the airbrushed messages of the government campaign to attract new recruits to teaching. They tempt with decent salaries to "hang out with Raj", without mentioning that Raj's class will probably contain half a dozen characters Sir or Miss would rather hang.

And it's getting worse - something recognised by ministers when they set up the behaviour task force earlier this year. This group of successful heads and teachers will report back soon with recommendations of what schools should do. Their suggestions may help. But managing symptoms is not the same as addressing causes, and to stand a chance of anything approaching a permanent cure we need to delve far deeper.

The question should be: why are we producing waves of children who become teenagers incapable of rudimentary self-control or civilised behaviour?

First, look at the adult world. Does anyone deny that coarse and antisocial behaviour in pubs, shopping centres and public places is increasing? Can anyone pretend that swearing has not spread through public life like a rash? Flick on the television on a football night and count how often the players get away with questioning the referee in a confrontational manner.

These are the influences on teenagers today. Faced with them, teachers are becoming dispirited and leaving their jobs altogether or moving. This accelerating turnover destabilises these schools further. The oil slick of bad behaviour spreads.

Pat solutions do not exist, and they certainly don't involve government alone. But a cross-party admission that there is something dysfunctional about a large swathe of society would be a good start. And it would be helpful, too, if the entertainment world were to announce that it intended to put its arguments for artistic freedom to one side.

In their place could come a commitment to do everything possible to set a good example and create a kinder, more selfless, less nakedly materialistic atmosphere for children to grow up in. In the short term, as a teacher, I hope ministers back the behaviour task force's ideas with real money, to embolden and encourage heads to put behaviour improvement at the top of their priority list, if it's not there already. The outlook is by no means hopeless.

The Unteachables experience is not entirely negative. There are some touching moments when the inspiring and talented teachers succeed in bringing out the best in the young people. But, with teenagers who've gone this far off the rails, tiny, incremental improvements leave teachers emotionally and physically clapped out. We need to ensure the teens don't turn stroppy by targeting the problem much lower down.

Just occasionally, the masks of the snarling adolescents slip, revealing young souls where insecurity, tenderness and fright swirl in confusion. Children deserve a better world than we adults are providing for them. We can all do something to help.

The writer is a teacher who works part-time in London schools