Reaping the whirlwind – violence in schools

Argus title : Heads must take control

A year or so ago, the government ran a television recruitment campaign for teachers. Various celebrities gave the name of the teacher who had influenced them most – someone they would never forget.

In my case, it was Miss Bowyer. She was a little sharp-nosed maiden lady, who taught me in my second year at Overport Government School in Durban. I was 7 years old.

I liked all my teachers. There was the terrifying Mrs Moxon who gave you stars and sweets if you did well – and hit you with a folded leather strap if you did not. We used to whisper that she reminded us of Ma Grisson in the gangster novel “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”. In the novel Ma Grisson has her head blown off by machine gun fire. But we meant no harm to Mrs Moxon. She rewarded us far more than she whacked us.

There was gentle Miss Durand, with her 50s dirndl skirts and ‘beehive’ hair. There was Miss Bogle who had acne scars and a mean mouth and wore bras with ferocious uplift. And Miss van der Hoven a clever buxom bottle-blonde with pouting pink lips and winklepicker shoes. We were mesmerised by her.

But, plain wrinkled little Miss Bowyer was my favourite. Her classroom was like an Aladdin’s cave, full of brightly coloured paper and interesting objects. She skittered about it like a sparrow.

She loved art. She placed a huge reproduction of Picasso’s “Child with a Dove” above her blackboard and covered the walls with pupils’ wax crayon drawings.

Years before the women’s movement, she insisted both boys and girls learned to sew and do handcrafts. No child left her class without embroidering a hessian shoulder bag with brightly coloured wools. And all of us took home to our parents a woven pot stand made of cane.

All of this may sound nothing unusual to the privileged British ear. The truth is no other class at my school had resources like this. It took me years to realise that Miss Bowyer must have paid for the extra learning materials – the paint, the felt, the cane, the hessian and wools – out of her own pocket.

In the context of Apartheid, this may not sound much. These were all white children. However, except in respect of race, they were not privileged. Many were poor. One or two, I now realise, were stunned and stupid with malnutrition and neglect. In a class of well over 30 children, she taught them all to read.

I think of her often. And I’ve done so again as I’ve read 2 recent reports of the rape of women teachers. These were profoundly shocking.

Over the years there has been an ongoing, largely unacknowledged, problem of sexual assault on girls in co-educational schools. This is unsurprising given the institutionalised misogynism in many of our schools.

However, the rape of a teacher is particularly shocking. This is not because the effects upon the victim are more terrible, but because such blatant assaults signify catastrophic collapse of boundaries and controls. In a school where such a thing could happen, no pupil can feel safe.

At this week’s conference of the National Association of Head Teachers, the issue of violence and abuse towards teachers has dominated the agenda, as it has at other recent teachers’ conferences.

David Hart, the outgoing General Secretary of the NAHT attributed worsening behaviour to poor parenting. He claimed behaviour in schools had deteriorated because parents failed to teach their children basic standards.

Attacking Education Secretary Ruth Kelly’s much publicised commitment to increasing “parent power”, he said there was a danger it would send the wrong message “one that has parent power, not parental responsibility, written all over it”. Giving more power to irresponsible parents would, he said, be like “putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar”.

I spoke recently to a South African working as a supply teacher in another part of this country. She expressed horror at the absence of discipline in some UK schools and the level of abusive behaviour by pupils to each other and to teachers.

She was assaulted by a teenage boy not long after she started work. It was a minor assault – not as severe as those referred to above – but when she asked for help from senior colleagues and her headteacher, it was denied. In fact, she was blamed for complaining.

She was young, female and on a temporary contract. Her status was low and there was an expectation amongst her colleagues that pupils, particularly boys, would behave abusively. She was expected ‘to take it’.

She could not understand why British teachers permitted such a situation to continue. She didn’t expect parents to solve the problem, believing that teachers, led and supported by head teachers, are responsible for conduct in schools.

Her own father is a head master of a large state school in South Africa. There are problems of poverty, violence, crime, drugs and guns in the community it serves and few social supports for young people. Yet, in the years she was a pupil there she saw nothing to compare with the indiscipline she witnessed in a modern British comprehensive.

For all their apparent differences, Ruth Kelly and David Hart are not so far apart. Ruth Kelly says parents should exercise more power in schools. David Hart wants them to exert less power, but nonetheless to take responsibility for negative behaviour there.

Neither of them acknowledges that, in fact, it is they who have responsibility for breakdown of controls in schools.

Head teachers’ representatives have been swift to condemn pupils and parents who threaten or assault them, but have appeared markedly less eager to address the widespread problem of assaults on child victims in the schools they manage.

Within the last two months alone there have been reports of 2 children committing suicide as a result of bullying. Over the past 2 years there have been several bullying-related homicides. By any sane educational standard this should have been a primary focus of discussion at the head teachers’ conference – but it was not.

Too many head teachers, over the years, have turned a blind eye to bullying in their schools, failing to protect children who ask for help. It is hardly surprising that some schools are becoming ungovernable and that violence is being turned upon teachers.

The UK has a serious problem of intra-familial child abuse. Teachers are particularly well placed to notice signs which may indicate its presence.

Yet in addressing the problems posed by violent parents, head teachers’ representatives have focussed discussion, not on the risk to children, but on the significant, but far smaller, risk to themselves. Some have even called for the expulsion of children with violent parents.

Violence towards teachers is of course completely unacceptable, but the victims are adults. They have a far better chance than children do of accessing legal supports and of harnessing the civil and criminal justice systems to protect them.

In extremity, teachers at risk of assault by parents can take extended sick leave, or even leave their jobs. Children at risk of assault by family members have no such options. For them, school is often the only refuge.

I have met many excellent teachers in this country. Some have been supported by fine head teachers, while others, against all the odds, have achieved miracles in isolation.

Such teachers know that children cannot learn unless they are safe – and that they cannot be safe in school unless the conduct of adults and children is governed by clear rules and consistent boundaries, fairly and firmly maintained.

The first step to putting the situation right is for those who have responsibility to own it. However, it is difficult to know how they will achieve this when politicians and their representatives will not.

Too many head teachers this week sounded like coach drivers who, having dropped the reins and given the horses their head, complain when they land in a ditch. They sit on the roadside, spattered in mud, blaming the horses, the passengers and the coach – everything in fact but their own driving.

At the risk of getting a black board rubber thrown at me – I think they need to stop complaining, stand up, get back in the coach and take up the reins.

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