Special report: Five years old and out of control

Highly disruptive pupils are blighting primary schools – leaving teachers desperate for support and advice on how to handle the problem.
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Levi, a Luton schoolboy, is struggling physically with special support staff as he is carried down a corridor to the school's "quiet room", an empty space with bare walls and no furniture to throw or climb on, where he can be kept from disrupting other children. Today, he has been in school for a total of two hours, and the support team have quietly been trying to coax him into class for most of that time. Later in the morning they succeed, only to find that two hours later he's once again left the classroom. It seems an impossible battle.

But this is not one of Britain's troubled secondary schools or another tale of teenage violence; this is a primary school, and Levi is only 10 years old.

While it has become commonplace to take youths to task for unacceptable behaviour, we feel much more uncomfortable with the idea of an unruly four or eight year old.

This might explain why those filmed for this week's Dispatches on Channel 4, titled "Britain's Challenging Children", are braced for controversy. Shot over seven months in Glasgow, Wigan and Luton, the film follows five primary schools in their attempts to address classroom disruption, and shows the stark reality of life in this part of the sector: the hours spent dealing with unruly behaviour instead of teaching; the refusal to follow class rules and the challenging of authority; the verbal abuse from angelic-looking children barely waist-high to a teacher.

It put pictures to the hard-hitting statistics of a nationwide survey carried out for the programme in conjunction with the NASUWT, the teachers' union. Of the 2,200 primary school teachers who responded, 97 per cent said they had disruptive children in their class, and two-thirds felt behaviour had got worse during their teaching careers. Only around 6 per cent thought they had seen an improvement. Acts of physical aggression (hitting, kicking, spitting, uncontrolled outbursts or destroying property) are "fairly common", occurring at least once or twice a week in almost one in five primary classrooms across all key stages.

This type of behaviour is typical of only a tiny minority – which is a welcome ray of light in a bleak survey. But even this is hardly reassuring. If, as the report suggests, it is the severity of the behaviour of a minority of pupils that is increasing (rather than overall behaviour deteriorating) it is still bad news for teachers who know that one disruptive pupil in a class of 30 is one too many, affecting their ability to get on with teaching the rest of the class. Measures often have to be put in place to isolate these younger children.

Most believe that parents are largely to blame for the poor behaviour teachers have to deal with, says Chris Derrington, formerly senior research officer at the widely respected National Foundation for Education Research, who wrote the Channel 4/NASUWT report. The report blamed a "lack of parental support, inadequate respect for teachers' professionalism, weak parenting skills, inadequate parental attention and over-indulged children".

One in three teachers admitted their own training in behaviour management was insufficient for dealing with the disruption they faced. But the main message was clear: "the most common responses attribute the blame directly at parents and to a perceived general lack of respect for teachers and authority," the report concludes.

Levi's headmistress, Hilary Goddard, who runs Ramridge Primary School in Luton, says that nationally we are seeing far more highly disruptive behaviour in young children. "The film will prompt considerable debate – much needed debate," she says.

"Childhood has been eulogised as the age of innocence, but now we are facing an epidemic of social, emotional and behavioural problems that challenges this notion. Schools have been perceived by governments and society as the means to solve society's ills – if something is going wrong in society it must be because it's not being addressed in the curriculum." She adds that concerns that would once have been considered parental responsibilities have become part of the school's remit. "The burden on schools is ever increasing, but it's the schools in the most deprived communities that carry the heaviest load."

Goddard says that open enrolment, parental choice and league tables have led to the creation of "ghetto" schools where the additional challenges posed by coping with unruly behaviour are rarely recognised in the annual budget.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, says the problem is a strategic one in that there is a "postcode lottery" of provision made by local authorities. "So it can be patchy across the country," she says. "There's not a standard package of measures a school can access." Nurture groups, for example, now shown to improve both behavioural and academic performance, are still only run in under 4 per cent of British schools, and those that exist often face an uncertain future competing for scarce funds.

Despite government recognition of the problems of disruptive behaviour, and the granting of considerable disciplinary powers to schools, Keates says staff are reluctant to use those powers. "Schools have a range of sanctions that are the strongest they've ever been given," she says. "But they are not using them because they think if they do, their school will get a bad reputation in the community or with Ofsted. Yet the opposite is true – the community respects a school which says, 'Yes, we have a problem but we can handle it.' Bad behaviour can be tackled, it does not mean a school is out of control."

Keates also says school governors are increasingly reluctant to back the judgement of heads and teachers in using the additional powers the Government has given them. It's time, she says, to get rid of league tables and set up measures of accountability that are supportive, not punitive. That way, local authorities and schools can be honest about the scale of the problem and need for early intervention, before there is any need for more costly action later.

But the obstacles that were encountered in the making of the Dispatches film demonstrate that honesty is not always forthcoming. Some local authorities were reluctant to let the team speak to heads who were, in fact, very proud of the support work they were doing.

We do see some progress in the film. Levi is given a target that he eventually reaches – to stay in class for a whole day once a week. The endless patience of the staff eventually pays off.

Not only do Levi's marks shoot up, but during the six months of filming he turns out to be a good artist, and we see him surveying his work with pride. "My work's right on the end, the black one," he says. "It makes me feel good, I'm proud of myself, what I've done."

But the lack of transparency and the fact that teachers often feel ashamed to admit they can't control children as young as four mean a dangerous silence is building. This is not helpful to staff, who may not have had sufficient training in dealing with complex behavioural problems and may leave teaching as a result. Nor does it help children, like Levi, who don't get a chance to lift themselves out of difficulty.

You can see 'Dispatches' online at www.channel4.com/4od

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