TV UK, 28 April

Who's responsible for Classroom Chaos?

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

Who would be a teacher?

The hours are long (after all that marking), the pay is not great and the punters – the children – seem to be perpetually ungrateful. According to the evidence presented in Classroom Chaos (Five, Wednesday 8pm), teaching today is a relentless exercise in crowd control.

Teacher Sylvia Thomas (a pseudonym) left the profession 20 years ago but decided to return as a supply teacher, while filming secretly, to see how things have changed. She found that constant low-level misbehaviour prevented work from getting done in lessons, and direct insubordination to the teacher was not uncommon, much of it downright nasty.

When it comes to supply teachers, it was ever thus. When I was at school, probably around the time that Thomas was teaching full-time, you tended to size up the teacher in order to see what you could get away with. The four main factors were: age, gender, whether you liked them, and whether they were going to be there again next week. Thomas, a relatively old woman who seemed like a bit of a nag and was only teaching the kids temporarily, was on a hiding to nothing. Even we bright kids liked a riot once in a while.

But nonetheless, we did have some standards. We knew that once we got into class we had to sit down and not wander around. We rarely ate in class. And swearing at the teacher was a complete no-no. Admittedly, teachers were allowed to hit you then. But we didn’t behave because we were hit; fear was a factor, but ultimately we worked hard because the teachers had earned our respect. Whatever the reasons, Thomas was quite clear that something substantial had changed.

These were not failed schools on sink estates. They were schools that had passed inspections and were often sited in leafy suburbs. Government inspectors thought that all the schools involved were of a good standard and that behaviour problems were either not worth commenting on, or were minor. As the programme repeated, this is a national problem.

The biggest concern for Thomas was that the children no longer accepted teachers’ authority. She felt that pupils, not teachers, were in control. This seemed like an exaggeration. But there is a lack of deference, and this is a symptom of a wider problem – that society in general no longer thinks it appropriate for adults to impose their will on children, even if it is clearly done for the benefit of those children.

While coverage of Classroom Chaos has been sensationalist, and the first part of the film suggested it was going to be an hour of whining about unruly kids, the second half of the film made a decent stab at trying to put that misbehaviour in some context – particularly in the comments of physics teacher and spiked contributor David Perks. He rightly pointed out that schools, like many institutions, were suffering from a crisis of authority. As a result, when teachers had to confront pupils, the teachers were uncertain if they would receive the support of their superiors. Neither teacher nor pupils knows where the line should be drawn.

But even more worryingly, the whole purpose of education seemed to have changed, from a genuine attempt to teach children about the world into a series of turgid lesson plans handed down from on-high, with the aim of passing on a whole bunch of ‘transferable skills’. Who needs a specialist teacher with a degree in the subject when all the children will do is read the handout and plough through the worksheet? While the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) runs recruitment commercials celebrating the shared moments of insight and discovery in classrooms, teachers and children both seem to be bored.

The film suggested that there were reasons for optimism: schools that have attempted to recreate clear boundaries seem to have had some success. Instead of a meaningless freedom of choice that implies that those who run the school don’t care, the film suggested that pupils would thrive in an atmosphere where their educators project a sense of purpose.

The film was by no means perfect, providing ammunition for populists who think the easy answer is a crackdown in schools. But it was still a breath of fresh air after the boneheaded suggestion in recent weeks that kids’ behaviour could be explained by fizzy drinks and turkey twizzlers.

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