Teaching: Why we fail those who need us most

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THERE is a memorable phrase in the 1989 Elton Report on discipline in schools. It is that 'children get attention in two ways: working well or behaving badly'. Teachers at all levels are experiencing a huge and stressful increase in the latter at the expense of the former.

Education can begin only when children are receptive and ready to learn. But we can no longer make assumptions that children will sit still, listen and do as they are told. We live in the age of the sound bite, instant gratification; an age when the television often takes the place of the parent. In the more disadvantaged areas of Newcastle upon Tyne, the city where I work, it is not unusual for children to begin school with speech limited to a few nouns, unreliable toilet training and no experience of cutlery or eating at a table. Such children have never encountered concepts such as sharing or taking turns, or deferred gratification. It is hardly surprising that the most common troublesome behaviour in inner- city reception classes is temper tantrums.

Teachers are the most diligent, obedient, self-effacing and docile workforce I have encountered. Could this be because they have followed the educational treadmill all their lives, with its system of hierarchy and expectation, and have never stepped off it to sample any other way of life?

This same attitude can be found in the classroom. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to arrange one's teaching space in whichever way appears most efficient for delivering the national curriculum and for having the children well disciplined and ready to learn. Many teachers in inner-city schools feel required to follow educational trends because they are told to do so by their heads or advisers. So, for instance, they organise children into groups, with several activities going on in the room. This works well for the majority of children, who can be self-motivating and self-disciplined enough to work without close supervision. Yet even in 'middle-class' environments, there can be children who suffer under this system. Children with learning or behavioural difficulties become adept at using the licence to wander, and rarely settle to any productive learning activity unless the teacher is present at their table. The system often breaks down in classrooms where children come from areas of grave social disadvantage.

We are failing the very children who have most to gain from education: those from the poorest backgrounds. All youngsters need structure and routine; most have these at home. Those who do not have that security at home have an even greater need for it at school. The greater the need, the tighter the classroom structure should be. We should never reach the situation, which I often encounter, where teachers admit frankly that they are grateful to have a system of group activities because they doubt whether they would ever be able to engage the attention of the whole class.

Falling prey to fashions in education does not happen only in the classroom; it happens at local education authority level, too. I know of two new schools whose teachers preferred the Victorian buildings that have now been demolished. Open-plan schools can work well, but again they do not help those children who need rigid structures to benefit from school life. Classrooms without doors - without even four walls - do not allow the teacher to command the full attention of a class when there is

a high noise level and constant distraction.

There are problems, too, when craft areas are positioned between teaching areas, yet out of the sightlines of any teacher. Given escalating levels of aggression, and the need for children to use potentially dangerous equipment such as scissors, is it any wonder that these well-equipped areas are under-used?

The number of children identified as presenting behaviour problems is rising. In a recent survey, headteachers in Newcastle identified on average 5 per cent of their children as having behaviour that was difficult to manage. Teachers' estimates were even higher. The children causing these problems are younger and younger. When I began working with pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties in the late Seventies, they were all adolescents. Now the bulk of my work is in primary schools, with one third of the referrals being children who have only just started at school. The next logical step can only be to work with parents before the children get to school.

The 1979 Warnock Report, with its admirable aim of eliminating the labelling of children (educationally sub- normal, maladjusted, etc) and allowing as many as possible to remain in mainstream schools, has led to the closure of many special schools. Without exception, teachers I meet applaud that development. But at the same time they express grave reservations, first about their ability to meet 'special' children's needs without specialist training, and secondly about the effect on the rest of the class. Local education authorities often conveniently choose to overlook a very important clause in the 1981 Education Act (which was generated by the Warnock Report) that deals with this last point. Educating a child with special educational needs in an ordinary school must be compatible with 'the provision of efficient education for the children with whom he will be educated'.

Yet special schools are often full, with long waiting lists, and it is being made increasingly difficult to exclude pupils with behaviour problems. The latest development is the possibility of fining a school that excludes a pupil. So teachers go on coping, trying to implement the national curriculum against tougher odds.

Additional support and advice to teachers are therefore essential, but support services to teachers and children with special educational needs have been so diluted by cuts that they are in danger of being perceived as making little difference. The next logical step will be to eliminate them altogether. With schools now managing their own budgets, centrally retained services within local authorities are obvious targets for financial savings. But the need for services to support and advise on all kinds of special educational requirements has never been greater.

The writer is a consultant teacher for children with emotional and behavioural problems for the Education Support Service, Newcastle upon Tyne. The views expressed are personal.

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