The first thing I want to do when I come to a new school is to hear what the people who are already there think of it. That’s the children, the parents and, crucially, the staff. Their opinion of how the school is and how it could be improved is worth a thousand of mine – they are the people who really know. And if you walk into many schools and ask “What could be better?” the first response will often be: “Behaviour.” It’s the hot topic and the great conundrum of our times, because the way children are and the way they behave seems to have changed so much over the past few years, and therefore the way schools address it has also had to adapt. There is some brilliant practice helping some troubled and troubling children. But why has there been such a dramatic shift in the way our young people conduct themselves at school?
The first thing we must remember it’s us that has changed. We can’t expect children to behave in the same way they did in the 1950s if the behaviour of the adults they see all around them has changed completely. Standards in public life are very different. For instance, my grandad would never have left the house without wearing a tie. He wasn’t Governor of the Bank of England – he worked in a foundry - but these were the dress codes he had been brought up with and he couldn’t contemplate anything different. Equally he would never have been seen eating or drinking in the street, and you would never have heard him blaspheme or swear.
These things are common place now and children are often exposed to them. Let’s take a couple of examples from that list.
While my grandad was fastening his tie every day of his retirement, I was at Primary School without anything you would now recognise as a school uniform. We were all dressed in plain clothes in the seventies and a right shower we looked in our itchy jumpers and flared corduroys. Fast forward forty years and the new trend in schools is for even primary age children to have a uniform with a proper shirt and tie. Yet at the same time there is a modern trend amongst adults not to wear a tie even for work. In business it’s now open neck shirt and trousers; they are unheard of anywhere else. We are asking more of our young people that we ask of ourselves.
Similarly there has been a huge cultural shift around bad language and this affects schools too. Not only did primary age children not swear years ago, we didn’t know the words because we weren’t exposed to them on radio or television and we never heard adults use them. Nowadays its common currency – at a low level it’s frequently used in the street and in shops and in the media. Even Radio 4 issued a directive a few years ago relaxing guidelines on the use of a list of what you might classify as second division swear words during daytime broadcasts. No wonder our children quickly move on to the premier league list. Sadly most of our children now seem familiar with this sort of language and need reminding that school is not a place where we want to hear it. The old idea that we would protect young ears from bad language seems absurd now – the best we can do is educate them about what’s appropriate.
The same principles apply to all manner of aspects of childhood – we expect children to use staffs surnames, and yet in no other area of public life does this happen anymore. When I took up my first position as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper in Cambridgeshire, I asked the editor how I should address him and he thought it was hilarious that I should call him anything other than Keith. And that, as you can imagine dear reader, was a very long time ago indeed. Nowadays it is inconceivable that anyone would use Mr or Mrs – children or adults - except at school.
We also expect children to sit around a table and eat their lunch nicely with their knives and forks in the correct hands. Yet as soon as we walk into McDonalds or KFC, everyone is eating with their fingers.
Children have changed. Childhood has changed. And, crucially, adulthood has changed. The world is much more informal, much less deferential. As a society we are more protective of our children in some respects (we don’t let them out to play so freely) and yet less protective in others (exposure to bad language, seeing people drinking alcohol etc).
The challenge for schools is where we should draw the line. We have to ask ourselves which of these issues are worth going to the barricades for. To what extent do these things impact on learning and outcomes? And how many of the battles we sometimes have with children are because we are holding a line on something which doesn’t really matter?
It is a particular challenge for my generation (50ish), more so probably that the thirtysomething generation who comprise most of our parents. We were brought up in stricter, harsher times, and we find it harder to imagine a school where everyone is called by their first name, everyone wears what they want, and we all eat our fish and chips with our fingers (not sure about the baked beans). Would it matter? It feels as though it would, but could it be argued that a more informal approach would change some children’s view of school for the better?