So yesterday there was a rather useful debate at Holyrood about violence in schools, brought forward by Stephen Kerr, the Conservative MSP, with interesting contributions from well…let’s be charitable…all the other parties. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Jenny Gilruth, made several cogent points, and, early on, made reference to my article in last week’s ‘Scotsman’, an article written on the back of an important speech by Catherine Nicol, the President of the SSTA. Ms Gilruth described me as ‘a former Head Teacher’ rather than naming me; the interesting issue is what, in particular, she picked up from my article to contribute to this important and topical debate.
Was it the need to review ‘The Presumption of Mainstreaming’, the SNP policy which means that mainstream teachers are left dealing with young people with complex special needs which they are very often not trained to deal with? Was it my concern for the large swathes of pupils who learn nothing while teachers deal with low level disciplinary issues (or get beaten up)? Was it the need I expressed to ensure that sufficient funds are spent on ‘special education’? Oh no no no. It was to do with language.
In my article, in a section dealing with the day to day lives of many professional teachers and the effect on their classrooms I wrote:
‘Another period of Maths gone because the teacher is outside the classroom trying to talk sense into some wee thug who terrorises other kids at break too. If there’s 28 in that class, every minute the teacher is outside is 27 minutes of class time wasted.’
I think that makes rather an important point, but the Cabinet Secretary isn’t interested in that; instead she complained about my use of the expression ‘wee thug’. She went on, in a voice no doubt dripping with sentiment,
‘..and the people we are discussing today are children, not thugs. Let us all remember that.’
Well. My problem here is that schools are meant to be microcosms of society, and, as at least part of their duty, they are supposed to prepare young people for the world beyond their school years, and indeed, the world outside the school gate when the bell rings each day. I think it’s not unreasonable to describe a 17 year old boy who beats up a younger boy, or a weaker boy, or a weaker girl or a teacher as a ‘thug’, for that is what we would say if any of these things happened at 7pm on a Saturday. We don’t see headlines like ’18 year old child mugs 83 year old granny’. These ‘children’ can vote, have sex and pursue adult lives.
It’s time to ensure that the need to protect teachers and other pupils from the violent and frightening environment created by a tiny number of pupils which exists in a minority of classrooms in a minority of schools gets dealt with effectively and promptly, before a generation of teachers leaves teaching and a generation of school pupils fails to reach their potential.
This all followed on from a letter in yesterday’s ‘Scotsman’ from Billy Anderson, the Head of Services at an organisation called ‘Children in Scotland’ of which, I confess, I had not heard, which is surprising, given that I am a trustee of a major Scottish children’s charity, spent my entire career in education, and also that it’s a big concern, employing lots of people, mainly using government money. That said, it appears to do lots of potentially useful work. Billy also wasn’t keen on my language but we can leave that to one side.
‘Teachers absolutely have a right to a safe working environment; children and young people themselves, of course, have the right to expect a safe learning environment.’ Exactly, Billy.
He then complains that my article ‘does nothing to promote solutions to a complex problem…’ when in fact that’s what my article was about. Billy’s letter (let’s be reasonable, it’s quite short) does not suggest what solutions his organisation is putting forward and so, with my perpetual desire to a) be helpful and b) be loved, I emailed him to suggest we meet so that he can tell me about them. Oddly, he hasn’t so far replied…
He then went on to suggest the editorial staff within the Scotsman ‘consider their portrayal of distressed young people…’
Sigh. Just two things here – of course I accept that violence in schools is largely perpetuated by children with significant problems – social, familial, medical – with many of these stemming from poverty. But let’s also not forget the ‘distressed young people’ whose lives they damage and the ‘distressed’ adults. Secondly, this is of course an attempt to ‘cancel’ comment, in this case views with which, I am pretty certain, 80 or 90% of Scots would agree.
I genuinely hope I hear from Billy, so he can explain Children in Scotland’s strategy on this (ie dealing with this in the short/medium term) but for the moment let me reiterate my own strategy.
- Review The Presumption of Mainstreaming with a view to reducing the need for mainstream teachers to deal with children with complex needs.
- Ensure that real new funds are available to assist with the education of children with complex needs outside the mainstream classroom, either in dedicated units in schools or in separate premises.
- Enable Head Teachers to insist on the permanent removal of violent young people from their schools, so that the victims of violence – staff and pupils – do not have to deal with them again.
- Make sure that specialist teachers are recruited and properly trained to deal with young people with complex needs.
So that’s Cam’s plan – you can all have it free. I genuinely hope the summit agreed yesterday at Holyrood reaches some practical, time set conclusions and that we can halt these problems. But I fear the great ship ‘Scottish Education’, captained by Education Scotland, with first mate COSLA, will ignore the unions, the profession, public opinion (and, of course, me) and slowly steer towards the iceberg.