It seems that scarcely a week passes without the behaviour of young people, school pupils, making the headlines. A few weeks ago the riots in London and other cities were attributed by some to the breakdown of discipline in our schools. More recently, the results of a survey for the Times Educational Supplement showed that many parents, and some pupils, favour a return to the use of corporal punishment.
Two strands of public opinion have been voiced regularly. On the one hand, by those who despair that ‘things are not what they used to be’ and ‘there is nothing we can do about it now. It’s too late’. And, on the other hand, by those who call for the reintroduction of the cane and the strengthening of the law to support stronger disciplinary measures in schools.
In their different ways they are both saying ‘there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s for them (whoever they are – the school, parents, government?) to sort it out. Clearly such attitudes are unlikely to promote positive results, although the ‘hawks’ would probably disagree.
Whilst there is no quick fix to the problem, as a former headteacher and inspector I would make the following observations:
The shaping of a child’s behaviour profile begins at the cradle. The earliest role models are the parents and, perhaps, siblings. It is through these contacts that, as a baby, the child is introduced to values and attitudes, to right and wrong, to the concept of respect for others and for property, the choice of language and the tone with which it is delivered, and the first principles of self-control. At this stage the home environment is the child’s world and the parents are hugely responsible for the quality of that environment. The Jesuit saying, ‘Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man’ contains more than a grain of truth.
During the school years other influences make significant contributions to the child’s development, especially the school but also society generally, by which I mean the world beyond home and school. While it is not possible to change society, it is possible to help the child navigate a course based on the principles already established and by training him or her to consider possible or likely consequences before making a decision or taking a course of action.
But it is the other three component elements I wish to focus on – the child, the parent and the school. It is reasonable to assume that all three share the same goal: that is, that the young person will ultimately leave school having fulfilled his or her learning potential in knowledge, skills and personal development, and is adequately equipped to enter the world beyond school.
It is not sufficient merely to have a shared goal. To achieve success these three parties (partners) must have shared expectations, shared understanding of the ethos of the school and mutual trust and respect.
Teachers cannot function effectively without the full support of parents. There can be few other jobs (if any) where one person is responsible for the behaviour of 30 others, not all of whom wish to be cooperative. At secondary level the teacher is faced with a succession of different groups during the day.
Parents can only contribute effectively if they know what is happening – if they are clear about what teachers are seeking to achieve and if they understand how they, as parents, can help. Their support must be positive, both for the child and the school. They need to be kept in the picture. They need to be consulted. If there are problems they need to be involved at an early stage. If the child’s behaviour is unacceptable it is important that both pupil and parent understand why it is regarded as such. It is not a point for negotiation, it is an opportunity for clarification. Good communication between the school and parents is of paramount importance.
The school should make clear the ethos it seeks to promote through early contact with new pupils and their parents, preferably before they enter the school. This sense of corporate ethos should be reinforced through regular full assemblies and should be explicit in the nature and quality of relationships. Every pupil should have at least one adult they can approach with confidence in times of difficulty or when in need of advice.
The headteacher and governors should endeavour to appoint the right people and not rely solely on subject expertise. When, as adults, we look back on our school days, we tend to remember our teachers as people rather than what they taught us. The aim should be to draw together a team with a shared belief in what the school is about.
Also important is the effective deployment of the staff available. Not all teachers are equally comfortable with a wide age range or ability range, with group learning or mixed ability classes. A mismatch can invite disorder in the classroom. There is a strong argument for deploying teachers on a ‘horses for courses’ basis.
None of the above is profound. Indeed, most of it is plain common sense. But what it attempts to do is identify the inter-related responsibilities of the various participants involved in the ‘shaping’ of a young person. We all have a part to play – it is not someone else’s responsibility – and if we do so with honesty and diligence the outcome will be positive.
The key words are: expectations; understanding; respect; trust and communication. Ironically, in a rearranged order they produce the acronym TRUCE!
But the most important word of all is example – in particular, the example we set.