I was startled by an article in a local newspaper last week concerning the secondary school I attended. A former teacher of mine had been secretly taped giving his class a telling-off and the recording leaked to the press, provoking widespread outrage.
Thankfully, there are unlikely to be serious consequences for the teacher in question since the Head has come out in support. I was taught by him for five years; he is a far cry from the rage-addled lunatic you might come to expect from reading the comments section on that article. Indeed, he is a phenomenal teacher.
But this incident caused me to reflect on the sorry state of education, specifically regarding attitudes towards basic discipline. I have listened to the leaked recording numerous times in an attempt to ascertain why so many parents are so incandescent, and I am at a loss. It contains nothing embarrassing whatsoever, merely a teacher telling off his pupils for misbehaving. Going by the furore whipped up by sanctimonious onlookers, one might reasonably anticipate a Malcolm Tucker-style ‘verbal colonic’.
It is, of course, entirely natural for parents to be biased in favour of their own children. But this kind of blind self-righteousness fuelled by feigned outrage serves only to make children undisciplined, anarchistic and uncontrollable, not to mention making life immeasurably more difficult for teachers.
What do these furious parents actually want? Should telling off children be outlawed? The official guidance from the Department of Education is surprisingly unrestrictive, largely thanks to the stellar work of Michael Gove. It says that ‘teachers have a legal power to use reasonable force and other physical contact’ in cases where pupils are being disruptive, and it makes no mention of regulating verbal reprimands.
Going by the word of the government, then, parents ought to have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticising a teacher simply for shouting. However, we no longer live in a world of presumed innocence but rather one of trial by public opinion. And when that public opinion consists of parents reacting to their poor darling being shouted at by a nasty man, it is easy to predict the outcome.
Research consistently demonstrates in stark terms the immediate consequences of a breakdown of discipline in schools. A 2016 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that 40 per cent of teachers had experienced violence from pupils in the past year alone. An investigation by the GMB union revealed that nearly a fifth of teaching assistants are attacked by pupils at least once a week, with the most common offences including choking, punching, kicking and the throwing of tables and chairs across classrooms.
It is thanks to radically changing attitudes to basic discipline that behaviour standards have inevitably fallen and assaults by students on teachers have risen sharply. Continuing on this course risks turning all our schools into those ‘alternate provision’ establishments specifically for the most delinquent pupils, riddled with violence and where productive education is a distant memory.
The problem here, it seems to me, is that the implementation of normal and proper discipline in schools fits perfectly with the caricature of conservatives adopted by most of the Left. Tough love, like conservatism, is seen as mean and elitist in all its forms. And what could be more mean and elitist than a highly-qualified, powerful professional talking down to a vulnerable, helpless child?
For that reason, basic school discipline sits alongside necessary austerity and responsible economics on the shelf labelled ‘Things Evil Tories Do’. Why support the potentially uncomfortable notion of teachers disciplining students when you could take the much easier position of portraying the child as the victim of harsh Right-wing oppression (and toxic masculinity, while you’re at it) and then blame all the world’s ills on budget cuts?