How our schools lost control

Pupils are protesting and rioting and teachers seem incapable of stopping it.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics UK

Teachers are not the only ones striking in Britain’s schools – now pupils are at it, too. Across the country last week, children were downing pens and picking up placards.

At a school in Oxfordshire, pupils demonstrated in opposition to the introduction of a gender-neutral uniform. In Merseyside, pupils protested against skirt-length inspections. In Cornwall, children ‘flipped tables and chanted while shaking fences’ over the introduction of stricter rules on toilet breaks. Video footage, widely circulated on TikTok, shows some incidents are more akin to brawls or even riots than organised demonstrations.

Lockdowns have likely contributed to this spate of pupil unrest, with schools struggling to get back to normal. Having spent the best part of two years arguing that sitting in a classroom is unnecessary, teachers still face a near five per cent drop in pupil attendance from pre-pandemic levels. This means that each day thousands of children are falling further behind in their own learning by staying at home, and disrupting their peers when they do turn up to school. Headteachers, unable to get a grip on attendance, are also finding it difficult to enforce discipline.

But there’s something else going on, too. These restive young people seem to be responding to the fact that teachers and parents have effectively been sanctioning pupil protests for several years. Back in 2016, groups of parents kept their children at home to protest against standardised tests. And in 2019 many parents and teachers allowed children to participate in Greta Thunberg’s school strikes against climate change. As I wrote at the time, the praise adults lavished on the striking children meant the protests were less an act of rebellion and more like a school trip.

Even now, the adult response to the current outbreak of school protests is far from condemnatory. Parents publicly sympathise with children rebelling against what they describe as ‘sexist’ rules. Headteachers, meanwhile, issue statements about the importance of respecting the student voice. Told they can’t be trusted to go to the toilet unsupervised one minute, yet solicited for their views the next, it’s hardly surprising children are confused about how they are expected to behave.

The teacher strikes are not helping matters. Some striking teachers seem less concerned with the strategic aims of withdrawing their labour than with garnering social-media likes. Twitter hashtags, branded hats and Facebook-friendly dogs on picket lines have been the order of the day. The message this sends to young people is that education is less important than showing off on social media.

As it happens, I sympathise with girls angry at being made to wear gender-neutral school uniforms or allegedly being asked to show a red card if they are on their period and need to use the toilet during a lesson. The latter rule, in particular, could seriously embarrass some young girls.

Schools’ decision to micromanage skirt length or toilet usage is revealing. It suggests some headteachers see rules as a substitute for teachers’ personal judgement and authority. This becomes a real problem when children realise that not only do teachers have little personal authority anymore, but rules are also unlikely to be enforced consistently. Indeed, the way in which these school protests have spread and escalated suggests they are less about specific school practices and more a response to this general collapse of adult authority.

The school protests seem to have become a TikTok craze. Pupils film their protests, the more riotous the better, and share them on social media. One such video has been viewed more than 1.5million times on TikTok. This has nothing to do with politics and little to do with protest. It is mass participation in a practical joke.

But such is their lack of authority, teachers struggle to know how to respond. And so rather than ordering pupils back into the classroom, headteachers seem to be embarking on negotiations and making concessions. It turns out uniform regulations can be reconsidered after all. And if pupils want to leave class to go to the toilet at any time, well then maybe they can.

The current wave of pupil protests reveals just how weak adult authority is today. Some teachers are now struggling to determine just what it means to be a teacher – indeed what it means to have adult responsibilities. For all our sakes, let’s hope they work it out soon.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and author of How Woke Won, which you can order here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics UK


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