Mob rule in the classroom

The high level of noise, cheek, insolence and violence has to be seen to be believed

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Why do people wire themselves up with hidden microphones and cameras, take part in a lengthy undercover operation, and then surrender their footage to a documentary film-maker? Generally it is to get proof that some officially denied, widely disbelieved, or plainly unthinkable behaviour is really happening. What's interesting about Roger Graef's new film Classroom Chaos is that these techniques have been employed in order to expose something we all know has been happening routinely for years.

Why do people wire themselves up with hidden microphones and cameras, take part in a lengthy undercover operation, and then surrender their footage to a documentary film-maker? Generally it is to get proof that some officially denied, widely disbelieved, or plainly unthinkable behaviour is really happening. What's interesting about Roger Graef's new film Classroom Chaos is that these techniques have been employed in order to expose something we all know has been happening routinely for years.

The problem of "disruptive pupils" has been around for decades now, not just as a familiar part of the political debate around education, but also as a staple part of the social conversation teachers and sometimes pupils have in everyday life. Yet it is quite a testament to the degree to which those complaints are not heard, that even the protagonist of this film had been unaware of what the phrase "disruptive pupils" really meant.

Silvia Thomas (not her real name) left teaching in the 1970s, to go into educational broadcasting. A while back she signed as a supply teacher and was so taken aback by the ferocity and the frequency of disruption at every school she was sent to that she decided to continue her teaching as an undercover journalist, at randomly selected schools with good Ofsted reports.

Partly, the footage she obtained merely shows the visceral difference between knowing something and seeing it. As a mother of young children in one of the most feeble education authorities in Britain, I'm used to regular news and gossip about the antics of the children at local comprehensives, and used as well to the sight of police cars at the school gates.

Yet within seconds of sitting down to watch Classroom Chaos, I was on my feet again, pacing up the room in agitation, repeating "Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!" This was not because, on the face of it, I was seeing anything outrageous. In fact, it was the quotidian quality of the disruption that was the most upsetting thing.

Children were simply on their feet, moving around, shouting, bustling, getting on with their own bits of petty social business. The noise was massive and the teacher appeared to be making no impact at all on the crowd. The fact that within 15 minutes they were seated at their desks with books open in front of them, seemed, from this perspective, like a miracle rather than an appalling waste of teaching time.

Until now, I realised, I'd had a rather stagey view of what "pupil disruption" looked like. Somehow, I imagined, two, three or four people managed to keep up a low-level disturbance that distracted but did not engage the other children. But in this footage, whole classes are routinely reduced to a milling, hysterical mob, sometimes with certain pupils yelling for their fellows to shut up because they want to listen.

Silvia Thomas is aware that as an ageing supply teacher, rusty in her training, she is an easy target for pupils. But other teachers watching her footage, confirm that this really is pretty much par for the course in many English schools (a separate report, cited in the film, also points to declining disciplinary standards in Scottish schools). I've never, personally, seen anything like it, even though I was schooled at a rough comprehensive that mainly served housing estates. This high level of insolence, rebellion, violence and disobedience has to be seen to be believed.

The funny thing is, of course, that it is seen every day, by teachers, who despair at government initiatives to reduce exclusions - or, more recently, to introduce "parent power". Silvia Thomas suggests that what has changed since her day is the balance of power. She reckons it has shifted away from the teachers to the pupils, who are keenly aware of the switch. One has to conclude that it is not only in schools that the balance of power has shifted away from teachers. It appears that teachers are no longer listened to beyond the classroom nowadays, any more than they are inside it.

Silvia Thomas touches on this phenomenon when she talks about the attitudes of parents. Teachers often say "it's the parents" when they are asked why they cannot keep discipline. She says that parents, especially young parents, tend to visit their own still-smarting prejudices on their children. For them, teachers are still the enemy and school still a battleground. This, she says, is that home atmosphere that the children are sent to school from.

Which sounds pretty intractable. So it is a little odd that Classroom Chaos ends by suggesting that the problems of classroom indiscipline may not be so hard to crack after all. The last school Silvia Thomas takes us into is Sir John Cass comprehensive in London. It is one of the 10 "most approved schools" in the country, and it has been turned around under a head teacher who has clear rules, a zero-tolerance attitude to bad behaviour, and, he says, the support of most parents.

The head has made some structural changes, such as forbidding children from leaving school at lunchtime (they were not coming back) and teaching boys and girls separately in some classes. Crucially, the rules are clear - with everyone understanding that breaking them is not on. Children are berated for small misdemeanours in the corridors, and made to stand against the wall with their toes touching the skirting-board. It doesn't sound awfully child-centred but the children seem happier in this institution than they do in the scary, loopy schools.

There is a paradox here though. Teachers are desperate for the sort of behaviour they face today in the classroom to be recognised. But maybe the message teachers themselves have is not getting across because it is a confused message. Along with parents, teachers tend to blame centralised bureaucracy for poor standards. Yet while the head of the Sir John Cass School appears to have tackled indiscipline without some central government official swooping down to tell him he's broken directive 5,942, what one recent teachers' conference called for is a nationally recognised charter on standards of behaviour.

That sounds fair enough. But can it be, when there is already so much disgruntlement about central government interference? It seems to me that teachers aren't really sure themselves what they want, which is perhaps why their important message isn't coming across.

If ratcheting up school discipline and returning to old-fashioned rules is the answer to the discipline problems in state education then it is up to teachers to send out that message, just as Silvia Thomas has done. The mystery, however, is why so few schools appear to want to go down that road.

'Classroom Chaos' is broadcast at 8pm tomorrow on Channel 5

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