It’s hard to wake up after half term. My daughter is tired; she gurns, claims to ‘hate school’, ‘hate porridge’ and ‘hate babies’ (a dig at her brother). I lose my temper before we leave the house. Alas we don’t live in a utopia where all adults are kind and reasonable, all children go to bed early and school is fascinating.
Any parent knows that children become more difficult when they are unhappy. Any teacher knows that the children lined up in front of them are not necessarily having a wonderful time in their lesson, or outside of it. I have taught many children who sometimes seemed seriously unhappy, and I don’t think it was only because of my teaching. The tragedy is that the unhappiest children are often the ones who get punished, excluded from class and, potentially, excluded from school.
The last thing an over-worked teacher needs is a pupil who constantly disrupts the lesson with their phone or their rudeness. Teachers impose sanctions, follow their school’s discipline policy. But punishment doesn’t usually work unless someone also talks to the student: acknowledges them as a thinking, feeling, human – even a little.
When a child is excluded, that is likely to be only the start of their suffering. Barnardo’s “is calling for the Government to urgently increase high-quality support for excluded children, to ensure they stay in full-time education.” Research published by them last week states, “‘alternative provision’ for excluded children is at breaking point. Forty-seven of the councils across England which responded revealed they had no vacant spaces in state pupil referral units as of 1 July 2018 (PRUs). Even where there is space, there is a postcode lottery in terms of the quality of education they will receive.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Excluded children could find no place to go, be taught for only a short time each day, or be taught badly.
Exclusion can be the point when a child gets involved in violence. Sarah Jones, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime said “Professionals talk about the ‘PRU to prison pipeline’. The system is failing these young people.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Today, “tributes have been paid to two teenagers who were fatally stabbed on the streets of London within 24 hours.” (The Guardian, 2018.) According to government statistics, knife crime increased by 6% between 2010 and 2017. In the year ending March 2018, “there were 21,044 disposals given for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. Juveniles (aged 10-17) were the offenders in 21% of cases.” (House of Commons Library, 2018.) Children are killing each other on the streets.
Ofsted’s new focus on behaviour – Amanda Spielman’s preference for a “tough stance” (TES, 2018) – is not likely to help the most disruptive children while they are still in school. There is always a reason why a child does not co-operate. If a child is unhappy, addressing how they feel is more useful than a detention. Few teachers have much time to talk to their students. The Government recognise the benefits of school counselling, “what teachers and support staff say is that they often don’t have either the time or the expertise to help children and young people when they begin to show signs of distress. Studies show that school staff can appreciate the availability of a professionally qualified counsellor…” (DfE, 2016.) In the same document they recognise that, in 2016, only 62% of schools offered counselling services and comment, “we do not underestimate the difficulties” of funding. An increased focus on providing good quality counselling for disruptive children would make more sense than an increased focus on ‘behaviour’.
Children also misbehave because they don’t want to do the work. The work might be boring, it might be too difficult, it might not have any relevance to the child’s own life. It’s a tricky problem. It doesn’t help that teachers have very little time for individual students, or that students are locked into narrow schemes of assessment.
Another flaw with taking a “tough stance” is that children exist in the present. Threat of punishment – and ultimate threat of exclusion – may not deter a child from rudeness, violence, constant texting or bullying as they pass through each stage of their school’s discipline policy. A child will not realise what exclusion could mean for their future. A girl I taught (famous for her extravagant rudeness to teachers) told me she was hoping to get a place at the local pupil referral unit, because they ‘let you go out for a fag’.
Teachers are struggling desperately. And many – like me – have quit. According to the Guardian, in 2017, “Almost a quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already left the profession” (Guardian, 2017.) Of course teachers need to deal with students who make it hard to get through a lesson: for the sake of the rest of the class and their own mental health.
But is a “tough stance” really the best way to deal with the most difficult kids? Difficult students are also people, probably unhappy people: people whose lives could be severely affected if they are treated as a failure or a problem. If they end up excluded, their lives could be completely ruined – even over.