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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 monsters.

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 for sympathy.

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 to psychologists.

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 1996).

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 difficulties impossible.

'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



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