Joan Smith: Hey, kids ... leave them teachers alone

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The Independent Online

Is this an example of the "broken society" David Cameron goes on about? Last July, a group of pupils at a school in Nottinghamshire conducted an experiment of their own during science class; they filmed each other "winding up" their teacher, Peter Harvey, who had just returned to work after a five-month absence due to stress. It worked: goaded by several pupils, Mr Harvey snapped and attacked a 14-year-old with a 3kg dumb- bell. The boy was taken to hospital with a fractured skull and bleeding to the brain. He has since recovered.

Last week, a jury at Nottingham Crown Court took little more than an hour to clear Mr Harvey of attempted murder. He admitted a lesser charge, grievous bodily harm without intent, and was told that he will not face a prison sentence when he appears in court again later this month. The judge, Michael Stokes QC, welcomed the not-guilty verdict as "common sense", and questioned why the attempted murder charge had been pursued in the first place. The general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, Chris Keates, said that her members knew of "case after case" of pupils "acting up" for phone cameras. She called for an inquiry into how technology could encourage children to behave badly in class.

In court, Mr Harvey's problems were said to have begun three years ago when he was pushed over by one pupil, knocked into a hedge by another and received a menacing visit at home from a third. He told colleagues that his classes were getting out of control and he feared he might hurt someone; he was diagnosed with severe depression and stress, and the jury accepted his defence that he attacked the teenager after being driven to breaking point by badly behaved pupils.

All Saints' Catholic School in Mansfield doesn't display the characteristics of a failing, inner-city comprehensive. An Ofsted inspection eight months before the attack described it as "satisfactory and rapidly improving", following poor GCSE results the previous year. It was popular with parents, and had lower than average numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals (a recognised indicator of social deprivation) or with learning difficulties. Ofsted singled out its "spiritual and moral development" for particular praise, saying that students had developed a "strong awareness of values, principles and beliefs" as a result of its "religious ethos".

Critics of "faith" schools might raise their eyebrows at this point, wondering about the "spiritual development" of kids who think it's amusing to film a vulnerable teacher being bullied into a breakdown. In the wake of the case, the school's website highlighted a favourable sentence from the Ofsted report, and it's unclear how many pupils were involved in disruptive behaviour. But the wider picture is that teachers' leaders have been warning for years about levels of stress, and the problem of unruly and violent pupils. In 1999, a survey showed that more than 80 per cent of teachers felt that pupil behaviour had deteriorated, while the NUT highlighted "an unacceptable level of physical and verbal aggression ... directed at teachers". Between 2000 and 2006, there were 1,128 attacks on teachers.

Such assaults aren't confined to failing schools in areas of high social deprivation, and they involve a degree of cruelty that reflects more than the usual adolescent rebellion against authority. They don't fit glib Tory stereotypes about "broken" Britain, but they do raise troubling questions about values – and the dehumanising effect of technology on teenagers with little regard for other people.!