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Sunday, April 11, 2010

The worst classroom bullies? Politicians

A toxic brew of meddling and failure to teach the basics has set teachers against pupils, says Francis Gilbert.

By Francis Gilbert
07 Apr 2010

Luke had his victim, another 13-year-old pupil, in an armlock and was smashing his fists against his face. Things weren't going according to my lesson plan. I rushed over to the fighting boys and yanked them apart, yelling at them to go back to their seats. The victim assented, but Luke stomped out of the classroom, saying he was going "to tell on me".

Although my actions had the backing of the 1996 Education Act, which had just given teachers the right to intervene in fights, my senior manager felt I had a case to answer. Fortunately, Luke's mother was sympathetic, apologising for her son's actions, and the case was swiftly dropped. She confessed that she'd totally lost control of her son.

I thought of Luke when Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, stood up at the annual conference of the NASUWT union to say that teachers must not be afraid to use physical force to break up fights. How disingenuous. We have been allowed to use reasonable force since the Act was passed; but a decade of Government intervention in the classroom has given pupils power at the expense of teacher autonomy and classroom discipline.

A toxic brew of government meddling, poor parenting and a collective failure to teach the basics has left our children angrier than ever, and their teachers are suffering the fallout. Almost every school day there is a violent attack on a teacher in England, with as many as 176,000 children being excluded from school more than once last year.

Despite the chaos in many classrooms, the Government persists in handing yet more power to the youngsters. One of their recent schemes, "Student Voice", allows pupils a say in the selection and appointment of their teachers.

So while Mr Balls is happy to tell a conference of pedagogues that they can knock sense into their pupils if they feel so moved, he is also encouraging those pupils to report any such misdemeanour. Talk about mixed messages. It's a wonder there are any teachers left.

Over the past 10 years, the Government has eroded public trust in the profession. It has sent out the message that classroom teachers aren't up to the job and need to be constantly spied upon by Ofsted, senior managers, other sundry bureaucrats, and now the pupils themselves.

Spending millions to create this surveillance culture hasn't driven up standards – far from it. Last year, less than half of our nation's teenagers got 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, with only one in three students getting an A*-C grade in a modern foreign language.

It is a national scandal that more than 20 per cent of youngsters leave school unable to read. It is possible to teach pupils to enjoy reading but only if teachers are properly trained – and too few are. Instead of funding the crucial training that enables teachers to deliver the basics, precious money is frittered away on self-defeating policies such as Student Voice. I suppose, with the election underway, we shouldn't be surprised that the classroom, already something of a battleground in real life, has become a political one too. But the politicians still won't listen to those on the front line. This was well-illustrated a few weeks ago, when I was invited on to Newsnight with a parent and some other teachers to question Mr Balls and his Conservative and LibDem counterparts. We were ignored as the politicians began squabbling among themselves. The next day, a pupil who saw the show said the politicians wouldn't last a second in a real classroom because they didn't listen. "They'd have a riot on their hands before they knew it, wouldn't they?" he said. It would be interesting to see how Mr Balls would deal with that.

Francis Gilbert's 'Working The System – How To Get The Very Best State Education For Your Child' is published by Short Books.

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