Ministers and unruly pupils 'causing collapse of schools'
By John Clare, Education Editor
(Filed: 27/05/2004)
Telegraph UK

Secondary education in England is collapsing under the twin strains of Government pressure on schools and deteriorating pupil behaviour, a report by Cambridge University's faculty of education said yesterday. Painting a grim picture of bored, aggressive children, hostile parents, and teachers at the end of their tether, the study said the Government's interventionist policies had brought schools to the point where they could no longer deliver what was expected of them.

John MacBeath and Maurice Galton, both professors of education at Cambridge, blamed a rigid, overloaded curriculum, prescribed teaching methods, large classes, imposed targets and "high stakes testing" for creating an atmosphere of "tension and stress".

It was all aggravated by the Government's obsession with the country's performance in international league tables, which meant the pressure on children started from the age of five. The straw that broke the camel's back was the Government's policy of "inclusion", which forced mainstream schools to admit pupils who were disturbed or had learning difficulties and would previously have gone to special schools. After questioning a nationally representative sample of teachers, the authors concluded that behaviour was their main concern. They had a constant battle to be allowed to teach, a struggle compounded by confrontational parents, who were more likely to support the pupil's version of events.

With the backing of Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which commissioned the study, the authors called for a halt to further Government initiatives and a national inquiry into secondary education, the first for more than a generation. The Government's Key Stage 3 strategy, which dictates how English, maths and science are to be taught to pupils aged 12 to 14, was at the heart of the problem, the report said.

Less experienced teachers welcomed the prescriptiveness because it "helped them survive in a challenging climate"; they used it as a comfort blanket. As one put it: "I don't have to think about what I'm going to do." However, the effect on pupils of a rigid approach that excluded spontaneous and creative teaching had been to reduce both their interest in the subjects and their liking for school. As one said: "You write down loads of things in your books you don't understand and you have to memorise it for tests."

When the authors asked pupils to describe their school experience, the most frequently used word was "boring". "The decline in pupil behaviour is clearly linked to the nature of the curriculum and the structures which frame it," the report said. It quoted a teacher of 20 years: "There is a core of children who are just not coping with school and the curriculum diet we feed them."

Prof Galton contrasted the findings of an official report on discipline in schools 15 years ago with the position now. "Then, the main concerns of teachers were pupils talking out of turn, distracting others, making unnecessary noises, leaving their seats without permission," he said. "Now, pupils' attitude is aggressive. They are far more assertive, and they challenge teachers who try to discipline them."

As one teacher observed: "The abuse you get - no one else would go to work in an office and be told to F off and be expected to put up with it." Teachers tended to attribute much of pupils' unacceptable behaviour to breakdowns in family life and a deterioration in the values and norms of society. One teacher said: "Parents are struggling. Their children are out of control. Their partners have left. They can't pay the bills. They are fragile."

The report added: "The nuclear and extended family are becoming historical relics. Teachers bear the brunt."  Not surprisingly, an increasing amount of teachers' time was taken up in dealing with misbehaviour at the expense of teaching. They were constantly filling in forms on pupils who failed to submit homework on time, disrupted lessons, abused teachers, fought with peers or damaged school property.

Profs MacBeath and Galton emphasised that their report described what was characteristic of the system, not just of schools in difficult circumstances. "The findings are worse than we expected," said Mr McAvoy. "They present a picture of secondary schools that should give the Government concern."

The Department for Education was unconcerned. "The report does not provide a balanced picture of life in schools," an official said. "Ofsted tells us that teaching standards have never been higher. "The strategy for early years in secondary schools has delivered the first sustained rise in performance at 14."

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