Ursula Hirschkorn investigates who’s to blame for increasing levels of unruly behaviour in our schools
When my children were pre-school age I toyed with the idea of training to become a teacher. I was attracted by what I thought would be short hours and long holidays. A couple of stints in the classroom soon put me straight. The hours are so long and stressful that the holidays are a necessity rather than a luxury. But what makes the job so hard? Ask a teacher and the response will frequently be: the parents.
A recent survey from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) lays the blame for declining behaviour in the classroom squarely with the parents. More than half of its members (53 per cent) said that behaviour had got worse over the past 10 years, with 73.7 per cent saying this was due to a lack of boundaries at home. The increasing breakdown of family life was cited as a key cause of this failure to set rules at home.
Many teachers back up this point of view. The ATL says its members have been verbally and physically abused by children, and a friend who is a primary school teacher wearily told me about a mother who arrived at school with her child in pyjamas, clutching his uniform and saying: ‘You see if you can get him to wear it, because I can’t.’ The child was six years old.
A recent survey of Kent schools found that significant numbers of children were starting school still wearing nappies because their parents hadn’t bothered to toilet train them. According to teachers, this type of poor parenting is rife – one teacher resorted to keeping a box of cereal and milk in her classroom because so many of her pupils arrived without having been fed breakfast, others tell of young children arriving at school exhausted after sitting up all night watching TV.
Karen Harper, who, after years of working in a school nursery, is about to qualify as a teacher, agrees that poor parenting makes her job more difficult. ‘Parents are finding it increasingly hard to be consistent with their rules and discipline,’ she says. ‘But if children don’t know what the expectations are, how can they be expected to follow them? Furthermore, if the boundaries and expectations change (depending on parental mood, different situations or other undefined reasons), the child is left confused and uncertain of what they are expected to do.’
Jane Ronan, a London primary school teacher with eight years’ experience agrees. ‘I feel [the decline in behavour is due] to parents failing to say “no” to their children,’ she says. But she stops short of blaming family breakdown for behaviour problems. ‘Having taught a class with three children experiencing family breakdown during their first year at school I can honestly say I saw no change in the behaviour of the three very different children’.
I know from my brief experience that teaching is undeniably a tough job, but is this simply a case of teachers passing the buck for failing to keep order in the classroom? Sometimes it seems as if the ‘rights’ of disruptive children trump any attempt to get them to behave at school, to the detriment of the whole class. Perhaps it is not just better parenting that is required but stricter schools.
Jessica Phipps worked as a primary school teacher in the UK for 10 years. Two years ago she moved to Spain and now works at a French-speaking international school in Barcelona. She has noticed a marked difference between the behaviour of children here and their European counterparts, and puts this down to the stricter approach to child-rearing in general.
‘I think culture and lifestyle play a big part, as I don’t see a lot of behaviour problems teaching in Spain,’ she says. ‘There is not all the “politically correct” rubbish here, as parents are confident and not worried about how they choose to discipline their children at home – even if that means a smack on the bottom. If children are disciplined and have rules at home, then this will result in correct behaviour at school and therefore allow teachers to teach and not spend all day dealing with behavioural problems.’
But it’s not just at home that rules are made to be obeyed. ‘I do see a big difference in the schooling here in Spain,’ says Phipps. ‘The rules are very strict [and if a] child misbehaves at school they are sent out of the classroom. There is no talk about not being able to exclude the child as there is the UK.’
While not condoning a return to smacking, a strict set of rules both at home and at school seems to be the key. As Harper says: ‘Parents, teachers and society have a duty of care to work together in showing and teaching children how to behave.’ It’s time to stop blaming the parents or the teachers. Instead, society as a whole has to get tougher on bad behaviour to make children in the UK start following the rules again.