Teachers give the wrong answer
The Nottingham teachers who threatened strike action over the behaviour
of a 13-year old schoolboy have been feted as heroes by fellow educators
and the media. Claire Fox anticipates more such disputes, and asks what
really lies behind the complaints about disruptive pupils in schools
Thirteen-year old Nottingham schoolboy Richard Wilding achieved the status
of national devil-child in April, when more than half the 38 teachers in
his school voted to strike indefinitely rather than teach him. The dispute
began after Richard Wilding's parents won their appeal against his permanent
exclusion (the current term for expulsion) from Glaisdale secondary school.
He had been expelled in February after he threatened another pupil with
a chair and abused a member of staff. Apparently he had been involved in
more than 30 separate incidents in the previous six months.
But whatever he did, could it really be the case that one 13-year old so
intimidated a staffroom full of adults? If ever evidence was needed of how
mundane problems are inflated to an extraordinary degree today, the Wilding
case provides it.
I do not know Richard Wilding, but there seems enough uncertainty about
his supposedly thuggish behaviour to ring alarm bells. The appeal tribunal
found insufficient evidence to back up Glaisdale teachers' accusations;
there were no witness statements and the expulsion was based on a confession
made by the boy to school governors. If grown men are intimidated into false
confessions in the face of the law, it would not be a surprise that, as
his parents argue, Richard Wilding felt a little unnerved before this panel
of local dignitaries. Neighbours say he is a friendly paper-boy, always
punctual and a nice sort. All in all, it seems unlikely that Richard is
either an ideal pupil or a Nottingham version of Damien from The Omen.
So why all the fuss?
In truth the furore seems to have little to do with Richard Wilding, or
indeed much to do with the issue of education in general. It appears instead
that Richard has been turned into a symbol of the threat which is supposed
to lurk in the nation's classrooms, in order to suit the strategy of one
of the major teaching unions.
The Glaisdale school row was less the result of an unruly child and more
the culmination of several years of campaigning by the traditionally moderate
NASUWT, the teachers' union at the centre of the case. This 225 000-strong
union held its conference over Easter in Glasgow, only weeks before the
Wilding case broke. The main emphasis of discussion at the conference was
on the risks faced by teachers at the hands of violent children, and delegates
voted to campaign for more 'sin bins'--Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) for disruptive
children. Shortly afterwards, the Wilding incident proved to be just the
focus Nigel de Gruchy, the union's general secretary, was looking for.
Nigel de Gruchy has made a career out of warning against the lurking menace
in the classroom. 'Some children', he said earlier this year, 'have been
able to bring the jungle law of violent street gangs into our school corridors
and playgrounds' (NASUWT press release, 6 March). His union has been involved
in an increasing number of disputes over disruptive pupils, and has used
this as its major recruitment theme over the past few years.
The NASUWT has put itself at the forefront of the fight 'to protect teachers
from being assaulted in their classrooms by violent pupils'. Its members
have voted for all-out strike on this issue on two other occasions, at a
primary school in Birmingham and the Bishop of Llandaff School in South
Glamorgan, where strike action actually took place. At present NASUWT members
in Tyneside are threatening to strike if asked to teach a 12-year old who--like
Richard Wilding--has won an appeal against permanent exclusion. The union's
other recent claim to fame has been winning an £82 500 out-of-court
settlement from the local education authority for a Coventry primary school
teacher injured following an assault by a 10-year old boy.
Such an intense level of activity to highlight the risks teachers face from
children seems perverse coming from representatives of professionals who
are supposed to be the experts in keeping children's behaviour in order.
What happened to unions organising against the employers for better wages
and conditions for their members? It seems to have been replaced by organising
against children. 'At Glaisdale School', de Gruchy declared, 'we have seen
trade unionism at its best', adding that the 'whole nation ought to be grateful'
to the Nottingham teachers, whose actions were held up as a model (NASUWT
press statement, 25 April 1996).
In fact the Glaisdale dispute already seems typical of a broader tendency
for people to become preoccupied with risks at work. Over the past year,
various groups of workers in service industries have made headlines with
campaigns to protect them from the people they work with. Unions, desperate
to find a new role for themselves in nineties Britain, have been keen to
jump on this particular bandwagon. Today the slogan 'fighting to defend
our members' is more likely to mean a campaign for panic buttons rather
than pay increases.
The civil service union, the CPSA, campaigns for protective screens to shield
dole-office workers from the unemployed. Public sector union Unison now
uses the language of the battlefield, describing caretakers and carers as
'frontline' workers in fear of attack from tenants and social service clients.
NHS employees have expressed their fear of patients; doctors who refuse
to go on night-calls cite the wrath of the sick, while psychiatric nurses
claim they are in danger from their madder than normal charges.
Has society really become an out-of-control war zone? Or is it rather that
people's perceptions of the everyday risks associated with work have changed?
There is little evidence to show that most jobs are more dangerous today.
What has changed is people's response to occupational hazards. Some jobs
have always had in-built risks. When I worked as a psychiatric social worker
12 years ago, I knew that schizophrenics in mid-psychotic episodes were
a danger, but it was understood that if I could not cope I should change
jobs. In the same way, the idea of teachers complaining that children are
naughty or even disruptive would once have seemed bizarre. After all, one
of the functions of schools is to act as centres of discipline, rules and
control, to socialise young people into adult behaviour. The idea that 13-year
olds were once angels is part of Mary Poppins' mythology. Becoming a teacher
was always an acknowledgment of your preparedness to deal with the little
Supporters of the Nottingham teachers will argue that British children are
more out of control today. In its 1989 pamphlet, Discipline in Schools,
the NASUWT talks of a general moral decline, claiming that children
exhibit 'lower standards of acceptable behaviour' due to the 'aggressive,
selfish, materialistic and violent society' we live in. But this statement
remains at the level of perception--indeed prejudice--when you examine the
facts. De Gruchy's assertion that 'there is an ever-increasing number of
hardcore disruptive elements' in schools seems as tenuous as the evidence
gathered against Richard Wilding. His union admits that there are 'no reliable
figures recording the incidence of assaults on teachers in the UK'. It then
complains that 'such limited official records as are available are entirely
deficient'. Deficient for what? For a scare campaign? When the article in
the union's journal Teaching Today (Spring 1996) goes on to assert
that 'many classroom attacks go unreported', you begin to suspect that exaggeration
and conjecture are combining to create the impression that things are worse
than in the past.
Informally, asking my friends and former teachers for stories from their
school days, memories of stabbings, inter-school warfare and downright badness
in the classroom litter the anecdotes. To my shame I remember the hell my
12-year old peers and I inflicted on a student teacher; that he survived
meant he passed his teacher training course and we then showed him due respect.
The same year our French teacher had a nervous breakdown, perhaps partly
because of the stick we gave him during every lesson or the gift-wrapped
dead toad we gave him for Christmas. When he was quietly retired, nobody
organised a strike; it was understood by his colleagues that he was just
not cut out to be a teacher.
The change of attitude among teachers seems to be based not on more monstrous
behaviour among kids, but rather on a changed atmosphere in society and
a change in the way people respond to the everyday trials and tribulations
of work. In the past, when teaching unions did manage to organise industrial
action, it was for improvements in pay, hours and holidays for their members.
Likewise CPSA members organised strikes to defend their jobs and conditions
from attack by the government, not to demand that the authorities protect
them from attack by the unemployed.
There is a very different atmosphere in our atomised society today. Notions
of solidarity, community and optimism--strong features of postwar Britain--have
been replaced by isolation and pessimism. The sense of people getting together
to solve social problems has been replaced by feelings of insecurity, vulnerability
and isolation, alongside an increasing preoccupation with problems of crime,
personal health and the environment.
For teachers this trend has many expressions. Staffrooms are becoming dominated
by the culture of complaint--endless fretting about staff shortages, bitterness
about having to cover for absent colleagues, despair as Ofsted inspec- tion
looms. But this in- tensification of every teacher's workload has not led
to a united strug- gle against expenditure cuts or extended hours. Instead,
there has been a spiralling increase in sick- leave, stress-related illness
and early retirement; individual escape strategies rather than collective
action. Aggressive management attacks have been met by remonstrations against
bullying bosses, with teachers aping the helplessness of children pleading
As elsewhere in society, the new climate has led to a breakdown of trust
among teachers. With the demise of solidarity, the tendency is to blame
each other for problems which are rooted elsewhere. Exasperation at the
undoubted real problems in the education sector is often expressed in a
futile pointing of fingers at false targets. Parents and teachers are in
a permanent stand-off, blaming each other for kids' behaviour and educational
standards. Recently this has become even more insidious, as the two groups
eye each other suspiciously in the wake of the panics about child abuse.
Teachers are terrified every time a primary school child falls over in the
playground--will they be blamed by an irate mother for the bruises? Thousands
of teachers have been suspended on such false allegations. Conversely parents
are routinely hauled in front of teachers to explain the latest scratches
their child has acquired in the rough and tumble of play. In this context
of mutual suspicion and continually looking over your shoulder, people are
more inclined to inflate problems and lash out in frustration against the
most unlikely targets--like a 13-year old boy and his parents.
If Richard Wilding really is a disruptive influence in school, it is the
teachers' job to deal with and discipline him. Some commentators have claimed
that this has not happened because teachers are now too frightened of being
accused of child abuse. But if it is true that the Glaisdale dispute is
partly a backlash against the panic about abuse, then teachers should be
open about it. If that really is their beef, they should surely be campaigning
against the premises and ideology of the 1989 Children Act, which has institutionalised
the child abuse panic, rather than against children. Instead the NASUWT
is calling for children who make false allegations to be expelled and sent
The lack of will to teach pupils and deal with problems has led to children
being dumped out of the education system by teachers refusing to face up
to their responsibilities. Typically, Richard Wilding has ended up in a
Pupil Referral Unit. These were set up 18 months ago. There are now 315
of them nationally, full of all sorts of pupils: school-refusers, victims
of bullying, pregnant school girls, excluded or statemented children, dyslexics,
children with emotional and behavioral difficulties--of any age from five
to 16--and all under one roof. These are the product of the NASUWT's 'brave'
stand against pupils.
The big problem facing teachers is not naughty children, a cheap and easy
target. Those making a monster out of a naughty schoolboy are behaving like
children who imagine that shadows are bogeymen. Adults who behave like scared
kids reveal a frightening lack of faith in their capacity to make decisions,
think for themselves and act as grown-ups. The next thing we know the government
will be sending us to detention.
Richard Wilding with his mother and father, Philip, who died of
a heart-attack shortly after the furore over his son's expulsion
Who needs special needs?
Many teachers claim that schools are now overrun with problem pupils,
due to the government's 'inclusive' policy of integrating 'special needs'
children into ordinary schools. As Nigel de Gruchy of the NASUWT said of
Richard Wilding, 'The boy is obviously disturbed. A mainstream school cannot
possibly cope with this kind of behaviour' (NASUWT press statement, 2 May
What is the truth of this issue?
Living Marxism spoke to NASUWT member Fiona McDowell, a special needs
teacher in the north-west.
'It is interesting how opposition to what is termed "inclusive education"
has developed only recently around cases such as Richard Wilding. It was
previously popular among many teachers who think of themselves as progressive.
I have always had my doubts.
'The problems stem from the mid-eighties when ideas about integration became
popular following studies like the Fish report of 1985. This led to the
closure of many special schools and an integration policy. As far as I can
see, this was simply a cost-cutting exercise; special schools are expensive
to run. But it has been presented as educationally progressive.
'The government have presented their inclusive policy on special needs in
the language of egalitarianism, and most teachers and our unions have accepted
that presentation, under pressure from the politically correct campaign
against labelling kids as less intelligent than others. These days educational
theory, backed up by regulations like the Special Needs Code of Practice,
suggests that all children are special and different, rather than having
varying degrees of ability. To explain away educational problems, learning
difficulties are discovered all the time, from dyscalcula (the mathematical
equivalent of dyslexia) to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (see
'A deficit of education', Living Marxism, No88 March 1996). This
makes accurate identification of the very few children who do have behavioral
'Many mainstream teachers have embraced the new policy for opportunistic
reasons. Special needs has a high degree of funding attached. It is well
known that middle class parents who want extra help for their child claim
she is dyslexic; likewise, if you want an extra member of staff in your
30-plus primary class, it is in your interest to get as many pupils statemented
as possible to get a classroom assistant. What worries me is that the Wilding
case in Nottingham highlights how any behaviour that teachers do not like
can now be labelled as "special needs".
'In some ways special needs is becoming a meaningless category. This confusion
can get very messy. There is a case locally where a six-year old boy has
been excluded from infants school in Trafford. After several disruptive
outbursts, he refused to sign a home-school behaviour contract agreeing
to obey school rules including being polite, putting up his hand to ask
questions and sitting quietly. How many six-year olds do you know who either
understand contracts or would voluntarily agree to such restraints? Being
six is all about the joy of being naughty--and the lessons of being told
what you cannot do. Anyway, his parents have now got him diagnosed as ADHD
and argue he is being discriminated against. Teachers respond that he needs
special teaching--but not by them. In the meantime this child--who has above
average reading, comprehension and maths abilities--sits at home without
an education while everyone argues about defining special needs.
'I suspect that Glaisdale represents teachers' real hostility to the consequences
of government policy on special needs, but they are frightened to argue
that openly. The problem is that rather than campaigning against the cost-cutting
system of "inclusive" education, there has been an attempt to
scapegoat one child.'
(Fiona McDowell is speaking on the issue of special needs at The Education
Debate course at The Week)
Claire Fox is convening the course The Education Debate at The
Week conference in July.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 91, June 1996