Ask any head teacher what is concerning them most at the moment and they will most likely tell you one of two things: the squeeze on their budgets or the behaviour of their pupils. In truth they are probably looking at both side of the same penny. The reason we are struggling to cope with less money is that the demands are higher, and a significant part of the demand is coping with the deteriorating behaviour of some of our children.
Something quite fundamental has changed in the last couple of years; children have realised they can say no. And if they don’t like something they are being asked to do in the classroom, they can just get up and walk out.
I can remember pointing this out to my year 4’s when I was a class teacher fifteen years ago. ‘If you just want to get up and leave, all of you at once, I can’t stop you. There are 30 of you and only one of me.’ They used to look at me like I was deranged – why would a teacher tell us we could just leave? I then went on to explain that if they did walk out, they would have to accept the consequences. I would have to tell their parents what had happened and if they left the school site I would have to call the police. That tended to change the mood. Images of furious parents telling them to do what they were told or else floated through their minds. No one got up.
It’s hard to imagine having that sort of conversation with a class today. The unspoken agreement of compliance and deference has broken down and there is no new agreement in place. Some of these children do not care whether we tell their parents – they don’t do what their parents tell them to do either. They know that we can’t force them to comply – to sit down, to work, to out their hand up, or join in an activity – and the competing attraction of heading out through the fire door and playing up to the crowd through the window wins out. This doesn’t apply to most of the children of course, but it does describe a significant few and the number is growing.
Parents of the well-behaved majority sometimes struggle to understand why other people’s children won’t simply do as they are told. “If they don’t do it, why don’t you send them out of the room?” one Dad recently asked. “Sometimes they won’t go”, I replied. “Then you should have them removed.” I tried to explain the reality of trying to carry a kicking and screaming eight-year-old out of a classroom – the risk of injury both the child and the member of staff is high; it’s not something we would do unless the child is posing a serious threat to others. Refusing to do what they are told does not meet the threshold.
My son works in retail in Chapelfield. If any of the customers become aggressive he presses a button under the counter and a couple of, serious looking lads with “security” on their shirts appear, and the offending member of the public is removed. For a few moments I allowed this image to play in my mind whilst talking to this Dad. It would be absurd, wouldn’t it? We don’t want primary schools to be like that.
So what is causing this shift? Loyal readers (yes, you two) may remember I have written about this before, and I stand by the theory that the change in children’s behaviour mirrors the change in the adults they see around them. The world has become more informal than the one I grew up in; the post-war consensus based on deference and standards of behaviour in public life has broken down. Children are now far more likely to see adults drinking alcohol for instance, or hear swearing either in person or on TV or online. We take them to the pub (I mean into the pub, rather than being left in the car outside like we were). We let them stay up late… I could continue to list things we allow now that my parents would never have allowed back in the seventies. But this has been true for a while and many delightful well-adjusted children have grown up in this world. The step change we have seen in the last couple of years, which affects a much smaller group of children, but who are having a massive effect on so many schools, must be down to something more.
Now this next bit might sound a bit outlandish but bear with me and it might make sense. Just look for a moment at what has happened in the world over the last couple of years. In Britain we are in the middle of the most turbulent period of public life since the second world war and our elected officials are not covering themselves in glory. Meanwhile in America the political discourse is dominated by a man whose behaviour can barely be called presidential. The presidents of Russia and Turkey behave in similarly thuggish ways. And the reason these political extremes have occurred is widely agreed to stem from a popular rejection of the political consensus – people who feel that they are not getting their fair share throwing a collective custard pie in the face of the establishment. Meanwhile our popular culture is a toxic combination of narcissism and mockery.
I’m not suggesting that our children are following world events in great detail, or every moment of the sclerotic progress of Brexit, but the role models given to us by Trump and co, combined with the widespread disillusion and disrespect for people in power and authority, has made living in Britain today feel very different. It is in the air all around us. It dominates our national conversation. So should we be surprised if some of that filters down to our children; that our chaotic national and international life is being played out in microcosm in our schools?
If I am right – if the change in school behaviour synchronizing with worldwide turbulence is not just coincidence – then it is vital we address this head on. We need to change the narrative. We must point our children towards hope instead of hate, promote inclusivity and tolerance, and give them some positive role models, both within school and in public life which can show them the value of working with people in authority rather than fighting against them.
Zero tolerance behaviour policies won’t work; they demand respect rather than earning it. Nor will permanently excluding children; we only end up with each other’s problems and fuel the bigger fire. Only the work of inclusive schools, and the dedicated professionals in them, can turn the tide.
Which brings us back to the start. Because for all the brilliance of our schools and the moral leadership of our headteachers, we desperately need adequate funding if we are to continue to put this vision into practice.
People often say to me: “I couldn’t do your job.” It usually turns out that this is not as flattering as it sounds; they’re not referring to any high-order skills in child development or pedagogy, they mean they don’t have the patience to work with other people’s kids. Which I always find surprising, because that’s the best bit. Children are bright, sparky, funny, insightful, full of surprises and utterly rewarding. And, like grandparents, we also have the luxury of returning them at the end of the day.
But if you are of the view that being a teacher is beyond what could reasonably be expected of a rational adult, then the school residential trip would really not be for you. This is hard-core teaching; twenty-four hour, constant supervision of children who are at the very height of their capacity for excitement, anxiety and, in some cases, homesickness. Like all teaching it is exhausting and fulfilling in equal measure, only much, much more so. From the moment you board the coach (counting the children on and checking again once they are all sat down, seat belts on, anyone who might be travel sick near the front, bucket ready), you are hyper aware of every detail of their behaviour and the environments they are entering and the potential for triumph and disaster in every single minute of the day.
The level of excitement on that first day is beyond anything you ever see in school. For many of those children it will be the first night of their young lives away from home without at least one of their parents or grandparents and it shows in some of their eyes, but most (sorry to break this if you had formed a picture of them missing you), most are fixated on the night ahead; what was going to happen when the lights go out, and particularly the prospect of midnight feasts and other subterfuge. No matter how many times you tell them this is not going to happen, there will remain a belief in the possibility which will only be extinguished by the very presence of a teacher in the doorway imposing silence until everyone is asleep. From the teacher’s point of view this isn’t quite as miserable as it sounds, depending on whether you have somewhere comfortable to sit, (how often does any of us get the chance to just sit quietly?) but even this enforced period of reflection and meditation can wear a bit thin after half an hour or so. Once you are sure everyone is asleep, the next challenge is to get out of the room without waking them all up again. Most of these places tend to be large, ageing houses with creaking floorboards and doors and it’s hard to move without creating a noise of exactly the sort that might convince the little minds that they really are in an episode of Scooby Doo.
One of the earliest instructions the children will have been given is what time they are allowed to get up. No one out of their room before 7.30; if you wake up before that, lie quietly so others can continue sleeping. Needless to say this does not always happen; and you often hear the first footsteps in the rooms and along the corridors by 6am. The sense of despair which settles over you when this happens, when you realise that there is absolutely no prospect of you going back to sleep yourself, is almost enough to make you agree with the contention at the top of the page. But reality soon sets in and the very different character of the second day quickly emerges. Gone is the slightly frenzied air of day one to be replaced by heavy eyelids and a subdued mood which quietens even further as the day goes on. It is not unusual for children to nod off on day two; at a previous school I found a lad fast asleep on a kitchen chair in the Reedcutter’s Cottage at How Hill; and by the time the second bedtime comes around, few put up much resistance. And they all get what they need most; a good night’s sleep.
So by the time we board the coach for the trip back home, everyone is happy again and the many benefits of these trips become apparent. The children will all have learned a huge amount, be it science or geography, or how to cook and clean, or how it feels to tackle a climbing wall or a zip wire. And they will have developed new bonds, with their classmates and with their teachers, and developed their self-confidence, their independence and their maturity. The effects will last throughout their time at the school together; and that is why it is a privilege for us to take these trips.
For the teachers they can be hard; many of us have children of our own at home and, as well as missing our families, we burden our spouses or partners with all the childcare for a couple of days while we are away. And as the years roll on it becomes harder to cope on a few hours’ sleep and takes a few more days to recover. But with the benefit of a weekend to catch up (and usually takes all of that) we are usually just about ready to say that we’ll be ready to do it all again next year.