Teaching in Damilola's shadow

Pupil behaviour can be shocking to new teachers. But they shouldn't despair, says Stephen Mccormack. Teachers can have an immense influence for good on wayward youth
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The Independent Online

Blame the parents! No, don't just blame the parents – fine the parents. And, I suppose, if they don't pay, jail the parents. That'll sort out youth crime, no problem. Peckham'll soon become as safe and serene as Camberwick Green.

I caricature, of course, but I worry that policy is becoming a scatter-gun approach of knee-jerk reactions coupled with well-meaning and partially effective palliatives. The fundamentals are being overlooked, or rather avoided, because addressing them would take more political courage, more time, and of course more money. But address them we must if the current trend is not to continue.

The trend I am talking about is the constantly declining level of behaviour among teenagers and children. Since becoming a teacher, I have lost count of the number of times more experienced colleagues, with decades of service in state comprehensives, have remarked about how behaviour has worsened and indiscipline increased year on year, and how this is continuing.

The manifestations vary according to surroundings, of course. Teenage gangs of prematurely hardened criminals do not stalk every corner of our country, but in some places, perhaps, it's only a matter of time? In the area of semi-urban Surrey where I teach, we thankfully do not yet have any Damilola Taylor-like incidents. But there are cases of teenagers being attacked in feuds that spill over from school, truancy is on the rise, and graffiti have begun appearing in places where they would have been inconceivable a few years ago.

It certainly appears very difficult to deal with persistent truancy. One pupil I should have been teaching for two-and-a-half terms has been to just one of my lessons since September. This pupil's total appearances on the register this academic year can be counted on the fingers of two hands. The school and education authorities have known about the case since last autumn, and the student has been seen out with a parent many times during school hours, but the official and legal bureaucracies have not yet managed to engineer a situation where the student is forced to attend school regularly. A whole school year has been as good as lost, and the student in question was, last summer, already way behind his peer group.

So it is not surprising to learn that, in more difficult inner-city areas, large numbers of teenagers are spending little or no time at school, and when they are there, not getting any real learning done.

The uncomfortable fact that has to be accepted is that, in many of these cases, the parents are as inadequate and incapable of normal, civilised behaviour as their offspring. It should not, after all, come as the remotest surprise, if a moment is taken to think on a wider chronological canvas. Today's parents, in their mid to-late-twenties, were merely the problem teenagers of the late Eighties and Nineties. Why should we expect that, just in the process of fathering and mothering children, they should have learnt how to become responsible members of society, ready to make a positive contribution to their communities and be good role models for their children?

More important, as sure as night follows day, today's delinquent teenagers will soon be parents themselves and equally incapable of passing much of value on to the children of the coming decade.

Once this is recognised, the mantra of "blame the parents" becomes, in many cases, utterly pointless, a waste of breath, a plastic mac in a monsoon.

The only way a society such as as ours, with such a deeply rooted social malaise, can have a hope of reversing the trend is by intervening directly with children at a young enough age so that bad habits picked up from parents and neighbours are not yet indelibly ground in to behaviour patterns. This policy of benign but deliberate social engineering has to continue well into teenage years, so that the individuals have a chance of, to put it bluntly, turning out better than their parents.

I am writing this from the viewpoint of a teacher, having seen the immense influence for good that teachers can have on wayward youngsters. I have witnessed colleagues of mine dealing sensitively, compassionately and, when necessary, strictly with teenagers tottering on the slippery surface of life's rails. In my short time as a full-time teacher I have been struck by how, in so many cases (and again this is not inner-city life), teachers like myself represent the only figure of adult stability in a young life.

But what is happening in schools up and down the country, and particularly in the inner cities? Teacher supply is horrendously erratic. Turnover is damagingly high. Large numbers are leaving the profession, and those who stay are so overworked that their potential for having a strong pastoral influence is, at best, diluted. Schools and vulnerable children need stability, and that is exactly what is absent at the moment, and getting worse.

I am not saying that teachers can crack this social problem alone. But, given support and time, they can be a key element in the co-ordinated approach that has to be mounted. Think of all the maternity wards up and down the country, from where will emerge this week alone thousands of future British citizens. They are not born delinquent, foul-mouthed or violent. It's what happens to them outside the womb that moulds their characters. We must all take a greater degree of responsibility for creating a better environment where we know it is needed. Because tomorrow's infants will be parents one day, too.