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Mark Ellse: Cowardly adults fuel classroom chaos


What are we to make of the ‘shocking‘ incident on a Clithero to Manchester train? Three unruly boys, thought be aged 8 to 11, boarded the train and proceeded to put their feet on the seats. As one observer said, ‘They were being quite cocky.’ An elderly man, believed to be in his seventies, then told the boys to put their feet down. After the pensioner’s intervention, they put their feet back up and ignored a further instruction to take them down.

It appears that the pensioner then handled things badly, first threatening the children with a clip around the ear and then using physical intervention to stop the children misbehaving. A student who observed gave the ultimate condemnation: ‘Man acted like US cop.’ No doubt the full force of the law will descend upon the pensioner in due course.

But there is another side to this incident which, to me, seems to be much more important. Here was a public-spirited man taking an initiative to get some children to behave properly. Others around witnessed the boys’ defiant response. What did they do? So far as we are aware, they did nothing to support the elderly man. The boys’ bad behaviour was clearly not their problem. Their only criticism was of the pensioner.

Our national newspapers followed suit. Pensioner ‘puts boy in armlock’, ‘Man armlocks child‘, ‘Shocking moment‘. Has no-one thought for a microsecond that, ill-advised though the pensioner’s behaviour seems to have been, the problem was caused by three unruly young boys? The British Transport Police are hot in pursuit of the man without a mention of the need for children to behave properly on trains.

Which is the bigger problem for our society? Mad pensioners acting as vigilantes, roaming around streets (and trains) looking for tender young souls to attack? Or is it rather the case that most of us dare not tackle bad behaviour where we see it because we know that we lack the support of bystanders and the instruments of society who should properly support us? As for the parents, the response would be ‘How dare you tell my child what to do?’

Those of us in teaching are all too aware of where the real problems of society lie. And those who criticise teachers seldom experience the difficulties of today’s classrooms. A friend started working in a state primary. The first day he was told by a pupil that he couldn’t tell the child what to do and that if he did his dad would come into the school and beat up the teacher. I remember one teacher locking himself in a cupboard when one parent came into the school to do that. On another occasion an older boy went berserk after having been sent to the head, who telephoned for help while hiding under the desk.

A primary teacher friend in a tough part of Birmingham had two sociopathic children in her Year 1 class. The teacher, a tough nut, contained the situation by long-learned skill and steady attrition. Inevitably most of her day was focused on these children to the detriment of the rest of the class.

Her school had just become part of an academy chain. The head, a man, could do nothing. He could not expel or suspend the children: there are strict targets limiting a head’s ability to exclude a child. Though the children were only six-year-olds he, personally, lacked the tremendous skills that his teacher had. When the children from time to time started throwing chairs around, he deliberately avoided entering the classroom lest his own lack of authority be exposed. In a way, he was just like the pensioner. He could tell the children to to take their feet off the seat but, in the end, there was nothing he could do to make them take any notice.

Ask any teacher. Incidents like this are part of the daily grind. Like the Manchester pensioner, teachers face the nightmare of having to control their classes with no effective means to do so.

Forget rearranging the education systems. Forget academies, forget free schools, forget any other forms of reorganisation. (I am being careful to avoid the G-word.) The real problem in schools is that society has swept away the structures that enable teachers to keep control. Every class of thirty contains a couple of disruptive children that wreck education for the rest. Solve that problem and any school will be as good as the best independent school.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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