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Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher: Violence in the classroom is a two-way affair

A story in which a teacher is alleged to have struck a 14-year-old boy with a heavy weight, leading to his hospitalisation and a charge of attempted murder may seem to be a clear-cut one. Things, however, are not necessarily so straightforward, and a horrible story has more than one aspect.

A 49-year-old physics teacher, Peter Harvey, suffered a stroke brought on by stress and took extended sick leave from his job at All Saints Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Mansfield. On returning to work, he was, according to some reports, given a hard time by pupils. In one lesson, matters came to a head. It is alleged that Harvey struck a boy, Jack Waterhouse, with a heavy weight. The boy's condition was reported to be serious, but improving.

What is this school like? According to Ofsted, who inspected the school in November last year, "behaviour and relationships in the school are good and so students show respect for their teachers and each other during lessons and around the school". It received an overall grade of "satisfactory", which may to the uninitiated sound all right, but is the third of four grades. The inspectors noted that students entered the school in Year 7 with above-average standards. These standards were not maintained, and "by summer 2007, standards by Year 11 were below average". It is worth noting that the school has a lower-than-average number of students qualifying for free school meals – that handy measure of child poverty – and a lower-than-average number of students with learning difficulties. In short, the inspectors at that time found that they were taking above-average students and making them into below-average ones.

Jack Waterhouse's fellow pupils are understandably very shocked and distressed by these events, and have set up a Facebook page. One wrote "jack your a megga laugh to year 9 and everyone is talking about you your well popular hope you get out the hospatial soon and enjoy your 7 weeks off !! loving you loaddz and keep fighting babbes !!"

It is incredible and horrible that a teacher should carry out such an attack on a pupil, whatever the circumstances. But I hope the legal process will consider responsibility for these events as widely as possible. Other pupils have testified that Harvey was a very good and responsible teacher until recently. If he was under that degree of stress, why did the school not notice or do something about it? Had they just accepted that students will taunt a teacher? Is that just something a teacher should cope with? Does any responsibility lie with Ofsted, who blithely reported good relationships and universal respect only eight months ago?

Between 2000 and 2006, there were 1,128 serious physical attacks by pupils on teachers. Almost every day, a teacher is physically assaulted and badly injured enough to take time off work. That figure doesn't take account of verbal abuse, of course. Peter Harvey is, thankfully, unique in the terrible action he took, and the particular circumstances of his case must be taken into account. But the schools, the inspectors, the governing body and the pupils cannot be absolved from all responsibility in such incidents. They have a responsibility of care for the staff as well as the students.

The serendipity of myself

The Ledbury Poetry Festival had the delightful idea of asking poets to nominate their most hated words. It makes a pleasant change from asking for a favourite word, which always and inexplicably gets the hideous answer "serendipity", for some reason. Philip Wells nominated "pulchritude", an ugly name for beauty. Geraldine Monk, fashionably, went for "redacted", though other spoilsports claimed that "words are to be loved" and declined to own up to disliking any.

I must admit to not being very keen on "exquisite", which starts with a car crash of consonants and has some fairly mimsy associations running alongside it. A lot of people seem to dislike "moist", which actually always makes me giggle. Other popular choices are "gobsmacked", quite rightly, and what I think is the adorable "spatula." My top choice, however, is "myself" – bad enough when used in place of "me", but when you hear someone say "John and myself are going to town", I genuinely start to feel a little bit sick. Where did that one come from? Henry James said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were "summer afternoon". I'd love to know what he thought the two ugliest were. "Serendipitously redacted", possibly.

It's bizarre to think that Moyles is paid to talk

Chris Moyles, the Radio 1 DJ, is the latest candidate for the BBC's genealogy-with-the-stars programme, Who Do You Think You Are?. Earlier this year, he reassured his listeners that, making the programme, "I didn't go to Auschwitz... pretty well everyone goes there... on their way to Florida". Instead, he went to the site of Passchendaele, where his great-grandfather Jimmy was shot and killed.

"It is mind-blowing and what a bizarre emotion this is because I know it is not going to end up good," Mr Moyles is said to observe in the course of his programme. Well, not all of us are articulate, or able to express what we feel. I'm sure Mr Moyles's sentiments were as deep as anyone else's, and it is a shame that he only had the word "bizarre" for them.

But surely we can wonder why the BBC is paying a man a reported £630,000 a year for his supposed ability to talk, when his solemn and considered response to the Battle of Passchendaele and the death of a direct ancestor is "it is mind-blowing and what a bizarre emotion this is?". Even these days, there are subjects that ought to be offered to someone who is able to open his mouth and put one word next to another.