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A golden age for classroom rowdies


THIS has been Children’s Book Week. Across the country pupils, especially the younger ones, dressed up as their favourite fictional character.

This being 2020 – a year in which the dogma of ‘restorative justice’ is  gaining an ever-tighter grip on many schools – the à la mode dress-upcostumes should be Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and Horrid Henry. Little Miss Naughty and Mr Mischief, though, must steal the show because their hour has come!

Ours is a golden age for any child who chooses to misbehave, both within and beyond the school gate. No longer can we expect, as routine, that teachers be allowed to teach, pupils be allowed to learn and law-abiding citizens be permitted to go peacefully about their business. Whether on climate change strike or running feral in our classrooms or on our streets, a minority of children no longer feel constrained by traditional boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

There has never been a better time for young people to be selfish, unruly and disruptive. Notions of blame, shame and punishment are so last century! These days the cards, especially in schools, are too often stacked in favour of troublemakers. Within any classroom someone will always be in charge. For the vast majority of pupils it is helpful if that person is the teacher. Too often, sadly, it is not.

Much the same can be said of the streets. Generally, most people prefer the police to be charge. Too often, this is not the case.

In some schools, things are beginning to fall apart as a consequence of a growth in disruptive behaviour. This was made clear in a 2018 report by the Policy Exchange think tank entitled It just grinds you down.

‘Persistent disruption is endemic in English schools . . . 75 per cent of teachers think that low-level disruption occurs frequently or very frequently . . .  72 per cent of them know a colleague who has ‘left the teaching profession because of bad behaviour’. It is also having a major impact on pupils’ ability to learn, according to a majority of teachers.’

The Conservative Woman highlighted the issue in January of last year in ‘A teacher’s messages of despair from the front line’ and ‘Whistleblower teacher’s diary of despair’.

According to a YouGov poll in 2018 most teachers agree that pupil behaviour is deteriorating. It was highlighted as a key cause of stress.

Around a third of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualifying and many cite stress as a reason for getting out. Poor pupil behaviour, of course, adds to this stress.

Teachers rely heavily on heads and senior staff to support them in matters relating to the disciplining of pupils. Instead of helping the teacher, however, it is becoming the norm for the disruptive pupil to be supported. ‘Restorative justice’ is, these days, determining the treatment of miscreants in many schools. In essence, the process consists of teacher and pupil giving their own version of a disciplinary incident to a mediating member of staff within a ‘no-blame’ culture.

The misbehaving pupil can get away with telling a pack of lies and the best outcome a teacher can hope for is a ‘sorry Miss’, but no further action. Quite a laugh, really, for the naughty child who, by persistently disrupting lessons, may have damaged the education of thirty other children.

A survey by the educational app Teacher Tapp discovered that 55 per cent of secondary schools and 40 per cent of primary schools employ ‘restorative justice’. More than a quarter of teachers, however, were prepared to admit that ‘restorative justice’ is regarded by badly-behaved as an ‘easy get-out’.

 The Nasuwt teachers’ union has pointed out that its own survey suggested that teachers regard ‘restorative justice’ as causing a deterioration in pupil behaviour.

There is plenty of guidance for schools on how to conduct a restorative justice meeting. Here are a few online extracts from a prominent publisher. 

They set out how to question a pupil who is being disciplined:  

1) What happened?

This is an opportunity to model the empathy and respect we want the pupil to develop. At this stage, the objective is for the pupil to feel understood and heard.

Listen (use facial gestures and body language, and small words eg. ‘yes’, ‘okay’, ‘I see’, ‘um’ . . . to demonstrate active listening) . . . 

2) How were you feeling and what were you needing?

Simply identifying and understanding the underlying feelings and needs that cause behaviour can often be enough to resolve it. A Feelings and needs card can be really helpful for this.

Suggest feelings and needs if necessary

Respond with empathetic body language and facial expressions . . . 

3) What were you thinking?

The objective at this stage is to help the pupil express their perspective at the time of the incident . . .

4) Who else has been affected? What do you think they might be feeling?

The objective at this stage is to help the pupil develop empathy and emotional intelligence towards others . . .

5) What have you learnt and what will you do differently next time?

If there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution, for example, they are bored in maths and they have rejected all ideas about how they could make it more fun for themselves, revert to empathy and sympathise with the challenge.

Some aspects of ‘restorative justice’ are sensible enough and have long been part of disciplinary procedures in schools. A problem arises when the pendulum swings too far in favour of the pupil. Under pressure from politicians and police to exclude fewer children from school, head teachers are in a quandary.

The term ‘restorative justice’ suggests a seductive, 21st century tone of respect for others. It alleviates justifiable concerns about some children being marginalised in school and ending up in criminal gangs. Certainly, no child should ever be thrown on the scrapheap. However, the rise and rise of restorative justice and the ‘no-blame’ culture that goes with it is having an insidious effect on schooling. The majority of children suffer, and teachers are demeaned by having to fight their corner against recalcitrant children.

The breakdown of order and discipline in some schools leaves the majority of pupils and teachers as casualties. An element of ‘restorative justice’ may, sometimes, help to resolve pupil-behaviour problems but it should not be centre-stage. When that happens, power is handed over to the classroom bullies. Small wonder that so many teachers are throwing in the towel.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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