Tag Archives: behaviour

Talk Of The Devil

A few years ago, I worked in a school where a pupil regularly engaged in sexual behaviour with unconsenting classmates. Like a bottle of M&S plonk, this was no ordinary child: this was the headteacher‘s child, whose appellation controlee meant that anyone who held him to account suffered kiboshed career progression, while those who looked the other way, or fabricated/destroyed evidence to cover his tracks, enjoyed the reciprocal backscratching of enhanced pay and plentiful opportunities. The entrenchment of these practices led some, sadly, to cross the floor.

When recollecting those on the opposite benches, I find it hard not to picture a scene from The Omen: the one in which Mrs Baylock, with her indeterminately yokel brogue, tells the devil’s offsprog to “Have no fear, little one, I am here to protect thee”. Damien, as I shall refer to him, has since moved to another school where, one can only hope, his parent’s professional status wields no exonerating influence. He took with him an unblemished record – the product (much like the licence afforded another powerful movie figure) of longstanding conspiracies of silence.

Nepotism isn’t the only reason that potentially criminal careers, like Damien’s, continue unabated. According to data released by 38 UK police forces, 2625 peer-on-peer assaults – including 225 rapes – were committed on school premises last year, with no consequent sanctions in the majority of cases. Though legally required to report abuse by adults to the police, schools are under no comparable obligation when the perpetrators are students. Instead, they must rely on their own safeguarding and disciplinary procedures.

Or not, it would appear, from those instances where alleged assailants have gone unpunished – even when witnessed harassing their victims – leaving the latter to find their own ways of escaping their abusers. According to Sarah Green, of the End Violence Against Women coalition, “In the worst cases, schools are worried about being seen to treat an ‘unproven’ allegation seriously, and girls commonly leave school.”

The DfE website helpfully reminds us that sexual assault is a crime, and that schools have safeguarding responsibilities. The Cameron government, however, refused to declare lessons in sex and relationships compulsory, despite the pleas of parents, staff and several cabinet members. Justine Greening has, to her credit, reversed this decision so that, from September 2019, they will be mandatory subjects in secondary schools. And why not, given that teachers and external specialists can now do a far better job of this than was the case Back Then, when my understanding of human reproduction was constructed largely around the procreative habits of rodents?

As our Biology teacher assured us, blushing and waving towards a chalk doodle of a mouse, that it was “a bit like that in humans”, thirty confused kids eyed each other’s – and their own – netherlands with an admixture of scepticism and terror. Similarly, the only wisdom we received on contraception was a teacher telling us, for the best part of an hour, nevereverever to have sex – counsel which, if followed to the letter, admittedly achieves the lesson’s purported objective. The same member of staff also considered ‘Nitrosomonas’ a suitable name for a child: one, presumably, born of ammonia, rather than concoctions of sperm and egg.

Shame on us, though, for allowing that fact to undermine our faith in her judgement. Her observations on the coercive power of language, and its impact on girls’ autonomy, should have a place in every school’s pastoral curriculum (assuming that it still has one: greater curricular freedoms have allowed many schools – academies, particularly – to jettison PSHE entirely). For, when sex is reduced to mere mechanics, with no mind paid to relationships and their ‘grammar’, the ignorance of – or, even worse, disregard for – consent comes as little surprise.

Credit again, then, to Greening: learning about healthy relationships will begin in primary schools and extend into the secondary sex-ed curriculum. Her proposals will, hopefully, address some of the damage caused by other, seemingly unrelated, examples of DfE tinkering, driven by her predecessors – policies that have helped to turn too many schools into environments where inertia is the preferred response to assault.

The rules around exclusion, for instance, when taken alongside the Department’s favoured structural policies, can act as a disincentive to action. Barring students from their premises for five days or less obliges schools to provide excludees with work for that period, beyond which alternative educational provision has to be arranged. In the past, the latter would have been managed with the assistance of Local Education Authorities. However, with heads having been urged to academise themselves out of LEA control, and the majority in the secondary sector having taken the bait, the same responsibility now rests more heavily on schools. Many find, in these less collegiate times, that others aren’t tripping over each other in the rush to welcome fledgling sex offenders. Nor are they obliged to do so, particularly if they, too, are academies or free schools, in which case the five-day prohibition may be as punitive as it can get.

Target-driven pressures to reduce exclusion can also deter schools from taking disciplinary action, as can the clearing of other statistical hurdles. Prioritising results above all else creates perverse incentives to keep assailants on site, lest they miss a valuable millisecond of rocket-boostingly interventionist additionality. This perceived imperative may explain the alacrity with which some schools will suspend a staff member for the flimsiest of nothing-to-do-with-refusing-to-cheat reasons, while displaying an equally vehement lethargy when a student oversteps the mark by a country mile.

As may the fact that managing student (mis)behaviour can be damned hard work. Hinted at but rarely explicated, the increase in peer-on-peer assaults suggests an alarming aversion, among some senior staff, to discharging that part of their duty –  especially (but not only) when it threatens the metrics on which careers are now built. These are often the cases in which leaders, including those with corroborating evidence of sexual misconduct, have preferred to advise victims that “this may not be the school for you”.

So forgive me if I accuse the DfE of having spoken with diabolically forked tongue. Thanks to its policies, education’s moral infrastructure has been so eroded that some school leaders now sport eyes even blinder than Father Spiletto’s, acting as if life-chances are more profoundly enhanced by a grade, than by learning that it’s both illegal and Just Plain Wrong to force oneself upon another. As long as it remains so, the devil’s children may just continue to enjoy the devil’s luck.

 

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Crime And Punishment

The tea-tray on which I began my descent of the slippery slope (at the bottom of which we now lie) was a detention a friend and I received for damaging institutional property. So record-breakingly long was it by our school’s standards that, on running out of cruel and unusual curricular punishments, the deputy head resorted to lobbing dusters at us, along with instructions on how to clean the bookcases in the panelled library. The topmost shelves were out of reach and, though our last grains of social responsibility howled “Nooooo” at the order to do so, we realised we had no option but to remove our shoes and stand on chairs.

And what of that? Well, in order to identify the most disgusting of our number, several of us childebeests had spent the preceding weeks competitively wearing unwashed socks. Indeed, with laurels not yet bestowed, some of us (fellow detainee and myself included) remained actively involved in this medically-inadvisable research. There are people for whom revenge, carefully planned and executed, tastes sweet; for us, it was unintended and smelled horrific. As we loosened our laces, a stench filled the air – the olfactory equivalent of a time-lapse movie charting the decomposition of a rat’s corpse. Those hitherto ignorant of our co-curricular efforts didn’t remain so for long, and the library was cleared long before it was cleaned.

Obviously, this occurred in so other a time that it may as well have been another place. Shoe removal would, today, be considered a paltry nod indeed towards Health and Safety; without an embarrassment of carabiners and the kind of immovable wedgie that can only a hyper-enthusiastic belay can achieve, it Just Wouldn’t Happen Now. Nor is a sock war, to the best of my knowledge, among the challenges in which young people of a competitive bent engage these days. Those, I am told, consist largely of death threats even greater than an acquaintanceship with my hosiery, delivered via etherweb and comprising punctuation, misspelling and smiley faces. LOLZ :o>

What dates this tale more than anything, however, is that it harks to an age of sanctions, also known as the Mesozoic era. Back then, doing something wrong resulted in punishment. The foolishness. As schools now concern themselves primarily with headline figures, things would be much easier for my teenage self in the current climate. I detach a page from a textbook weighing half a Zeppelin; my target grades, and proximity thereto, are established; staff are obliged to prove that they have done everything in their powers to ensure that I am ‘realising my potential’.

And thus is my act of vandalism transformed from a clear example of Selfish Little Shittery that fancies itself an ingenious solution to a carriage problem, into a symptom of disaffection induced by teacher incompetence. For, in the way of things like sunrises, the teachers’ efforts, however assiduous, will be deemed insufficient. As copping-out management goes, this is great, being equally applicable to the naughty-lazy daft, the naughty-lazy bright and their distant lazy-naughty cousins. Those cries for help, cunningly disguised as igniting each other’s hair extensions for fun, are just waiting to happen when Miss and Sir fail so comprehensively to meet their students’ needs.

We know that poor behaviour is one of the reasons for which teachers often leave their jobs – nay, profession. We know this because departing teachers tell us so, though they often go unheeded. Having created the category of ‘low-level disruption’ for the purpose of calibration, we now find that it is tantamount to an excuse, enabling senior staff so inclined to pile all responsibility for behaviour management onto the shoulders of classroom teachers, whose requests for help are re-interpreted as admissions of incompetence and logged in big, black folders of evidence.

The construction of improbable façades also leads many schools to believe they can ill-afford the appearance of any crack. Misdemeanours may go unpunished to ensure that no paper trail attests to behaviour issues. Line managers, rather than supporting staff by tackling the miscreants who prevent others from learning, hide in alcoves or barricade themselves inside meeting rooms. So dedicated are some to replicating those awful ‘living statues’ in Trafalgar Square that I’d have a fair chance of scot-freeing my way through fashioning a Camberwell Carrot from a textbook, lighting it off a classmate’s hair and partaking of its vapours in the playground.

Or, proving that the Yoda garb is nothing but a costume, some turn what should be opportunities for behavioural sanctions into rocket-booster sessions in which – defying fripperies like exam board regulations and gravity – grades already achieved may be…erm…revisited. So, yet more lunchtimes/after-school hours/weekends/holidays are given over to catch-up (or copying, as it’s also known) for those not yet hitting the mark; or, for those who’ve already done so, an expectation of “stretch and challenge” only achievable, in truth, on the rack.

As Meatloaf, junior lecturer in the Life Lessons Faculty, almost said, one out of two ain’t bad. My sock drawer may still smell apocalyptic but, in the light of the punishment inflicted upon me, I’ve not defaced a book since.