Steve McCormack: Why Clarke is wrong about bad behaviour

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The Independent Online

So, Charles Clarke's advisers have dreamt up another wheeze to try to tackle bad behaviour in schools. The bad ones are to be shared round. In the same way that most schools receive interactive whiteboards, whether or not they've asked for them, they'll now be told to prepare for the arrival of a job lot of Wayne Rooneys.

The proposals are couched in the - now familiar - reassuringly anaesthetic language of Government policy. Schools will agree "local protocols" so they will "find it easier to manage" these "hard to educate" children. "Three or four" of these pupils per school is considered a "reasonable number". There was now an opportunity to "turn around and change the culture".

So, that's all right then. Rearrange the deck chairs and the Titanic will not go down. Simple. It would be if Clarke and his civil servants did not inhabit a world worryingly remote from reality. While he has identified indiscipline as a factor needing attention, he has grossly underestimated the scale and spread of the problem, and attempted a conjuring trick to pretend it can be solved by drawing up a simple protocol. Ask most teachers, particular those working in state comprehensives - where the vast majority of children go - to sum up behaviour in 2004, and they'll paint a dismal picture: a vast proportion of teenagers turn up with an attitude to their teachers that ranges from indifference to hostility. A very small minority are violent. I've just heard of an experienced teacher who was head-butted by a student who didn't want to sit down at registration.

But a larger mass is rude, foul-mouthed and appears to have no residual respect for the process of education. And a larger group still, while never being directly offensive, will - by laziness, deception and low-level non-co-operation - make it very difficult for teachers to teach and the well-motivated kids to learn. I'm sure Clarke, like all ministers, receives a daily photocopied digest of the education news. Perhaps he should ask for a daily summary of what teachers are saying about behaviour on the various websites dedicated to the profession. Here are some recent contributions to the Times Educational Supplement:

"The biggest obstacle to teaching, for me, is the students' lack of manners, contempt and arrogance."

"Even in my top sets I have students who will do everything they can to actively fight the learning process."

"Many [foreign pupils] seem almost traumatised by the way children from this country speak to teachers. In my first year of full-time teaching, two teachers - one from Australia and the other from France - who'd just joined the same school were beside themselves with disbelief at the rudeness and bad behaviour they were experiencing, which would have been inconceivable back home."

Bad behaviour and disruption is a poison infecting and debilitating sections of the majority of schools. And, year on year, it is seeping further across the education landscape. Most schools, and teachers, work very hard at implementing behaviour management strategies - in some cases with large degrees of success. But it's mainly a containment exercise and one that often totters on a precipice; threatening to plunge into widespread disorder. Transferring a few of the worst (sorry, "most hard to educate") teenagers between schools will have no effect on the root problem. And here I have some sympathy with education ministers, because the issue goes far wider than the scope of their department.

The issue pierces the heart of a question not being asked, let alone answered, enough by the political class. Why are we, as a country, producing generation after generation of people who cannot behave in a civilised manner? Every year, about 600,000 children are born in England and Wales. They don't come out of the womb swearing. Something happens, for which we are responsible, that turns too many of them into people who respect neither themselves or others. The phenomenon lies behind so much of what's wrong in society. There are no easy answers, but shouldn't we be addressing this much more than dreaming up endless, elaborate and costly methods of treating the symptoms rather than the cause?

education@independent.co.uk

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