Apostle of permissiveness: A.S. Neill, founder of the progressive Summerhill School and best-selling author
Halfway through my first year as a history teacher at an inner-city comprehensive in England, I am reeling from the volley of abuse and misbehaviour that makes up my daily grind. I can be sure that at some point in my day I will be aggressively confronted, blithely disobeyed, and probably sworn at. Restless nights are common, and nervousness ongoing. Still, talking to my friends from teacher training, I feel I'm having a comparatively easy ride. I have not yet been physically assaulted, and so far I have avoided the much-feared mid-lesson breakdown.
At schools such as this, the deprived background of the children is routinely presented as a catch-all explanation for bad behaviour. The pupils' chaotic home lives, their lack of prospects, and an absence of aspiration in the local community are all popular excuses for the pandemonium that pervades inner-city schools. These factors undoubtedly have an effect, but such thinking lets schools like this off the hook. The endemic discipline problem within the state sector is in reality self-inflicted. At least half a century of "progressive" thinking on pupil behaviour has had disastrous consequences. In the competitive field of follies wrought by 1960s radicalism, there is a very good case for progressive education being the most socially destructive.
My school's discipline problem is depressingly normal. A survey last October for the Guardian Teacher Network — hardly a bastion of old-fashioned disciplinarians — found that 40 per cent of teachers complained of being bullied by pupils and, of those who considered quitting, 50 per cent named pupil behaviour as the reason. A 2010 National Union of Teachers (NUT) survey found that 92 per cent of teachers believed pupil behaviour had worsened over the course of their career, and 79 per cent claimed that they were unable to teach effectively because of poor behaviour. During the last school year, 44 teachers were hospitalised with severe injuries from pupil attacks at a five-year high. Perhaps most worryingly of all, a 2008 Policy Exchange report showed that the atrocious reputation of British schools for poor behaviour was the main factor in deterring new graduates from becoming teachers.
Despite the recent arrival of an energetic new head, my school's results remain stubbornly unimpressive. It is strikingly obvious to me and many of my colleagues that the fundamental impediment to pupils learning is a lack of classroom discipline. However, when I suggested this to a member of senior management at a training session, he winced at the very word "discipline". "Right," he said swallowing uncomfortably, "behaviour for learning" — this being the trendy euphemism, modishly abbreviated to B4L, favoured by schools too right-on to use the D-word. How, I wondered to myself, did British education get to a state where discipline is a dirty word?
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