An important debate on classroom behaviour took place at conference, at a time when panic about violence among children is leading to some schools introducing “airport style” metal detectors, on-site police officers and increased surveillance of students.
Last weekend, the media was full of stories of increasing violence and drug taking among students based on a report on pupil behaviour, published by the NUT. But the headlines distorted the report. It did find students today were found carrying weapons and more in possession of drugs than in 2001. But it also found that, overall, patterns of disruptive behaviour were broadly similar and that some of the more serious problems had decreased.
Conference passed a motion on classroom behaviour that placed the emphasis firmly on the need to tackle the root causes of disruptive and violent behaviour—such as institutional racism, large class sizes, an inflexible national curriculum and excessive testing and stress. Sara Tomlinson from Lambeth, South London, moved the motion. She said, “The headlines say that children are spoilt and overindulged. But I would have said the opposite—they are suffering deprivation.”
She said that children are “living in fear” and so carrying weapons as a result, and that the solution was not to exclude students but to make sure that they were supported. “Two simple things that the government could do to improve behaviour would be to reduce class sizes and end the testing regime,” she said.
Teachers speaking in support of the motion pointed out that they did not blame individual teachers for excluding children—it was a “failure of the system” that led to exclusions. Importantly, some delegates specifically defended parents against the idea that disruptive behaviour is the fault of parents. “We mustn’t demonise parents,” said Philippe Harari from Cambridgeshire. “If children are spoilt then it’s the result of the commercial targeting and pressure on parents and children.”
Tony Dowling from Gateshead echoed him. “I want to make it clear that the NUT is not blaming parents for bad behaviour,” he said, to applause from the floor. “There are many reasons for bad behaviour such as poverty and social deprivation – but not parents.”
Delegates were well received when they argued against the idea that disruptive behaviour is the fault of parents. “We mustn’t demonise parents,” said Philippe Harari from Cambridgeshire. “If children are spoilt then it’s the result of the commercial targeting and pressure on parents and children.”
Jackie Ranger from Birmingham gave a brilliant and moving speech about her son who was stabbed and died last year. “Leon was 15 when he was excluded from school,” she said. “There was no support for him and he turned to crime. His life is indicative of the destructive path that children find themselves in when they are excluded from school.”
Mike Stirland from Leeds spoke about the experience of his school where a student was stabbed last year. “The media descended with a pre-determined agenda,” he said. “Reporters offered kids money at the school gate if they would give a negative story about the school.”
Glenn Feeney from Doncaster works at a pupil referral unit with children who have been excluded from school. He told Socialist Worker, “We have around six kids in a class with one teacher and one teaching assistant. It is hard work but I would say it’s less stressful than working in a normal school.
“These kids are demonised as monsters but I’ve worked there for nine years and have never seen a teacher attacked. The way that education is organised makes a real difference. Small class sizes allow us to build up relationships and trust with the students.”
Only one teacher spoke against the motion, calling for “zero tolerance” on bad behaviour. But the motion was carried with just a handful of people opposing. Sara Tomlinson, summing up on the motion, said, “We do want zero tolerance – on government policies that have made our children the unhappiest in the world”.