Teachers' tales at the seaside

Violent pupils will be demonised at union conferences. But, asks Fran Abrams, who will speak up for the children?
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It is the season for teachers to meet at the seaside to complain about their lives and swap tales of horror and classroom hell. As usual, violence is high on the agendas of this year's union conferences and headlines will scream of "teeny thugs" and "terror tots" who threaten and intimidate staff.

This week the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, meeting in Torquay, produced a typical case. A nine-year-old boy had become so violent that his teacher was permanently disabled with a back injury.

A harrowing story, without a doubt, and one that certainly should never have had to be told. But the collective jaw of the press, who had assembled to hear it, dropped when it was revealed that the child was a recent refugee from Zaire. The boy's behaviour appears to have stemmed from his distress at witnessing and being forced to flee from the atrocities that tore apart his homeland in 1992.

As similar tales of woe emerge over the next few days, it might be an appropriate time to reflect on the way in which teachers' unions have been allowed to control this debate.

The following comment, from a teacher who had to leave the profession after an attack by a pupil, sums up the prevalent attitude: "It is considered a basic human right to be a nuisance and get away with it. Children can do no wrong ... the idea that they deliberately choose to do something wrong seems to be considered almost blasphemous." This is perfectly understandable from somebody whose life has been ruined, but it does not tell the whole story.

The teachers who suffer these serious problems of violence and disruption have a strong voice in their unions. The children concerned have no one to speak for them. It is easy to demonise these youngsters and to write them off as animals and under-age thugs who deserve no sympathy.

Of course, not every difficult child is a recent refugee. But for many, aberrant behaviour is a cry for help, a reaction to a whole range of traumas. Can we really condemn a child of five who is regularly beaten by his father and who then responds in the classroom by using his own fists?

The teachers' unions exist to protect the interests of their members, and it is perfectly acceptable for them to complain about the lack of support they receive. But the system does not just fail the teacher who is left to cope alone with an out-of-control infant as well as with 30- plus others. It also fails the other children whose education cannot continue while their teacher is busy trying to calm a disruptive classmate. And it fails the damaged, disturbed child who clearly needs far more help than an over-stressed primary teacher can give.

The unions are right to raise the issues, but they should not be allowed to hijack them in what sometimes seems a cynical attempt to grab media attention.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, has said repeatedly that if it came to a choice, he would rather see disruptive children on the streets wrecking cars than in the classroom wrecking lessons. A handy soundbite, perhaps, but one that fails to address the wider issues.

Excluded pupils who become juvenile delinquents often go on to spend their lives in and out of prison. Their children suffer the same disruption, often against the same backdrop of violence in their home lives that they suffered themselves, and so the cycle continues. Of course, it is not fair to ask schools to shoulder all society's ills, but there are more constructive solutions.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, talked this week about pupil referral units to which such children could be sent for a cooling- off period of up to a term. He also talked about sending teachers to the unit in order to improve their skills in dealing with disruptive behaviour. Extra staff in schools can help, too, so that these youngsters can receive the attention that they so clearly need.

These measures would not, of course, solve the problem - this week's conference heard about a five-year-old who put his personal minder in hospital by hitting him in the eye with his shoe - but they would ease the pressure. And maybe they would help to stem the flow of holiday-season scare stories about the scourge of our out-of-control youth.