A day in the life of an ordinary school: drugs, violence and intimidation
Documents released to the Sunday Telegraph paint a disturbing picture of the challenges facing Britain's teachers.
It is 9am, the start of the school day, and already an English teacher has been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from a 15-year-old boy. Outside on the playing field, the PE teacher has stopped a lesson to deal with teenage pupils who are swearing and not doing as they are told.
Later that afternoon, three more members of staff will report being verbally abused by their charges, and the day will end with a pupil vandalising the library.
This is just another typical day at Northfields Technology College in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. It is not a particularly extreme example of the unruliness that many state schools have to deal with on a regular basis, but it is a snapshot that will horrify parents as they prepare their children for the new term.
Records of classroom and playground incidents, known as behaviour logs, from five schools on the National Challenge list (those in which fewer than 30 per cent of pupils leave with five "good" GCSEs, with grades A* to C), reveal for the first time the struggle to maintain order in our secondary schools.
The logs, obtained by the Sunday Telegraph under freedom of information legislation, and taken from April and October 2008, show some secondaries recording up to 30 incidents a day. Children storming out of class and refusing to work is now commonplace.
More worrying, however, are the serious offences contained in the logs. During one week, which was chosen at random, a pupil at Tong School, Bradford, was stabbed in the thigh by a student and had to be taken to hospital.
"The age of deference is dead," says Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "As these documents show, in some schools, keeping behaviour under control is a massive challenge. Schools may well be coping, but it shows the level of indiscipline that teachers have to deal with every working day."
The picture painted by the logs comes as no surprise to Colin Adams, 50, a former IT teacher who was awarded £250,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement last month after an assault by a pupil ended his career.
Adams joined the teaching profession after working as an engineer. He loved his job and was head of department at Kingsford Community School in east London. In 2004, a 12-year-old pupil strangled him to the point of unconsciousness. Colleagues who witnessed the attack were at first too afraid to pull off the boy in case they were accused of assaulting him.
According to Adams, deteriorating behaviour in schools is a reflection of society. "I have seen children coming in high because they have smoked their fourth joint on their way to school," he says. "I have also had students who have brought knives in to school because they are worried about what will happen to them on their way home. Society, if it is not broken, has a lot of problems and these are mimicked by children."
The boy who attacked him fits an all too familiar profile – he came from a broken home, with a father who lived 100 miles away. Within a few months of joining the school, the pupil had chalked up 27 serious incidents, nine for violence. Adams was on the receiving end of the tenth.
"The day he assaulted me, he had already punched two other pupils, but was still in school. I had not been made aware of what had been going on," says Mr Adams. "He came from behind and ran at me, knocked me down and when I was on the floor, he strangled me. The teacher who eventually intervened had to prise his thumbs off my neck."
Months earlier, the boy was involved in a fight which led to staff requesting his permanent exclusion from the school. Their concerns were not acted upon.
However, the former teacher's experience, and the incidents revealed by the Sunday Telegraph's investigation of school behaviour logs, are not recognised by the Government as significant. Ministers insist that behaviour in schools is improving, and that head teachers have more powers than ever to deal with unruly behaviour.
Last week, they dismissed figures which revealed that thousands of pupils were escaping expulsion, despite violent and sexual offences which the Government's own guidelines class as serious enough to deserve permanent exclusion.
Teachers' unions complain that head teachers – under pressure from local authorities, which have a duty to provide alternative education for expelled pupils – are avoiding the ultimate sanction. Heads are also finding their decisions increasingly overturned by appeal tribunals or even their own governors, who are afraid of legal challenges.
Even the National Union of Teachers, which argues that schools are still one of the safest places for many children, has concerns.
"While teachers have the powers to deal with bad behaviour, it has become a serious matter for wider society that the behaviour of a minority of pupils and, in some cases, their parents, has seriously worsened in recent years," says Christine Blower, the NUT's acting general secretary.
Even if schools are dealing swiftly and efficiently with the challenging behaviour they encounter, at the very least other children are having their education ruined on a daily, even hourly, basis.
At Cheshire Oaks School in Ellesmere Port, the behaviour log for one week shows 73 cases of pupils talking, shouting and disturbing lessons, 61 refusing to obey the teacher, including more than 20 incidents of children simply walking out of the lesson, 65 incidents of poor behaviour, 32 refusing to work when asked, 39 cases of rudeness, 20 cases of verbal aggression towards staff, 10 incidents of children wandering around the classroom or using mobile phones, 14 incidents of lateness, 15 cases of pupils throwing things in lessons and four physical assaults.
And during one week at John Bunyan School in Bedford, pupils were reprimanded for smoking, verbal abuse, aggressive behaviour, drugs, dangerous behaviour and physical assault. Hayling Manor High, in Croydon, averaged between 20 and 30 incidents of bad behaviour a day.
None of the schools which provided records for the Sunday Telegraph study are thought to be failing in the eyes of officialdom. Indeed, inspectors say many are improving, and have "clear and consistent" policies for dealing with threatening behaviour from pupils.
However, all of the schools studied are operating in difficult circumstances. Each has a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals. Ofsted inspections have found that many children entered these secondary schools, at the age of 11, still unable to read and write properly.
According to Adams, despite the big increases in spending in the last 10 years, staff do not have the training and resources to deal with the increasing number of pupils who display problems. "It is true that some head teachers and local authorities do not take behaviour seriously enough and support teachers," he says. "But there is also not enough money to deal with these children. I had one class where eight of the 19 pupils had behavioural and emotional difficulties. When you're spending your time trying to separate them and keeping them in their seats, the level of teaching plummets."
The Conservatives have promised greater powers to exclude pupils who otherwise "fester" in the mainstream, as well as better provision for those who are kicked out. Labour's answer is the £5 billion academy programme, which is supposed to transform education in deprived areas. However, recent problems at academies in Southampton and Carlisle have revealed that these "independent" secondaries are not immune from the behaviour issues that plague other schools.
As revealed last month in the Sunday Telegraph, an emergency Ofsted inspection was triggered at the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle, when complaints were made about gang fights and bullying. The head of the Oasis Academy in Southampton resigned in November after a riot at the school led to five pupils being expelled and 25 suspended.
"The public has no idea about what goes on in schools," says Adams. "At the three I worked in, there were examples of children involved in prostitution, the selling of drugs, gangs, intimidation. Teachers do their best to police it and keep these things external, but they are still getting in to our schools."
# Julie Henry
# January 4, 2009