Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Public School Chaos ... Not Only in America

Americans may think that the chaos in the nation's public school system is a unique hallmark of American cultural decline. In fact, the rise of violence and misbehavior in public schools isn't confine to American schools. British public schools are struggling with similar phenomena (though marked by less violence). The issue became the primary topic of discussion at a March 29th meeting of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the UK's second largest teachers' union.

Ralph Robins, the union's primary liaison officer in Cornwall, said teachers at 18 of the 20 primary schools he visited last term had problems with discipline. "Cornwall is a delightful area but pupils still get rowdy and many of the staff tell me there is a surge towards questioning the authority of the class teacher," he said.

Complaints about behaviour from primary school teachers were growing, said Mike Wilson, from Newark and Sherwood.

"Children as young as five and six are violent and disruptive. There are children who bite, scream and throw furniture and others who continually question staff, quoting their perceived human rights," he said.

"Why should I?" they say, and "It's not fair." Primary schools tended to be sympathetic to the children and did not want to exclude them because they were little. "When they misbehave in this way then I say they are no longer little," he said.

Such rights-based rhetoric sounds distinctly American. US school children have used constitutional rights based arguments to justify wearing whatever clothing they wish and publishing derogatory material about their school, fellow classmates and teachers outside the school. US courts, unfortunately, have sided with the school children, eviscerating any attempt to impose discipline by the school administration.

Some in the UK union see the rise in disruptive school children as tied to high sugar intake.

Diet contributed to poor behaviour, said Joy Higgins, from Essex. She had recently returned to classroom teaching and noticed a deterioration in behaviour. "I see my form for registration three times a day. In the morning they are fine and human and you can hold a conversation with them.

"After break they are a bit rowdy and after lunch they are bouncing off the walls."

Miss Higgins said she called it the "sugar effect". One pupil had been behaving so strangely that she asked if he was on drugs. He said he had just eaten three doughnuts. Research had shown that cutting out sugary cakes and drinks reduced asthma attacks and improved concentration and behaviour.

"We need to ban all recognised junk food being sold in vending machines and persuade parents not to put it in lunch boxes," she said.

Others identified government policies as exacerbating the situation.

Many of the delegates blamed the Government's policy of inclusion, which meant pupils with severe behavioural problems being moved into mainstream classes as special schools closed. Just one child with behavioural problems could disrupt the education of the rest of the class, said Peter Tippets, from Hampshire.

"They see that if a disturbed pupil convincingly defies the authority of the teacher there is nothing that the teacher can do about it and the defiance spreads," he said.

The union voted unanimously to call for a reversal of the policy of including violent and disruptive pupils in mainstream schools. It also urged automatic and permanent exclusion for violent and disruptive pupils.

Whatever the cause, union members agreed that the problem is getting worse.
David Ward, from Sheffield, said poor behaviour was a common reason for teachers leaving the profession.

Applying continual, low-level discipline ground them down and prevented them from teaching. More serious incidents were also more common and he had received report recently of a teacher being stabbed in the arm with a compass and another hit on the head by a board rubber. The fire alarm had been activated by pupils 40 times in one day at one secondary school.

In one school, between 20 and 40 pupils were allowed to wander the corridors during class while at another pupils regularly spat on staff and each other from three floors up said Mr Ward.

In Merseyside a case worker said he had dealt with three violent incidents in just over a week in one school. "He told me that he had been a representative for the union for 30 years and had seen nothing like it," said John Mayes, a national executive member.

"Often pupils start to become aggressive and disruptive in year seven, when they first move from primary schools where they have had one teacher for most of the day. They find they are chopping and changing and some cannot cope with the sheer numbers of children around them," he said.

While high-sugar intake may explain some of the rowdiness of students returning from lunch (as well as caffeine ingestion from lunch-time soda), the pervasive rise of violence and confrontational behavior has its roots elsewhere. In Britain as well as America, public education has been defined as a right undeniable to every child. As such, public schools find their most effective weapon against disruptive students - expulsion, or the threat thereof - virtually unavailable except in the most extreme cases. Once expulsion has been all but removed from the table, and with parents ready to question and reject any other punishment, what credible threat do public school staff have left to cajole unruly students into line? In the US, school officials must walk a continual fine line, always worried that any disciplinary action could result in legal action brought against the school district by the child's parents or "advocacy organizations."

Disruptive behavior spreads through a class - and a school - once the other children observe that the most disruptive children (usually very few in number) receive little real punishment for their actions. Once the student body understands that the school staff can't really do anything to punish them, then there's no reason for them to behave properly.

A large part of the solution to this problem, in both the US and Britain, is to stop viewing public education as a right, but rather as a privilege offered to children by the generous taxpayers of their nation. If children misbehave, or the parents don't provide the proper guidence and support, the child can be expelled, the privilege revoked. Once other children see disruptive pupils being tossed out of school, discipline among the majority will improve greatly. Critics will ask, but what of the expelled children? Won't their lives be ruined? Won't they become criminals later on when they can't get a job because of lack of eduction, preying on the innocent? The answer is that many become criminals anyway, regardless of how much school they sit through. Parents of children expelled from the public schools could still be legally required to provide education for their children, but at their own expense in private schools willing to take them. Such a prospect might prompt many permissive parents to discipline their disruptive children themselves in order to correct their behavior and keep them in public schools so as to avoid the high cost of private education.


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