Imagine the situation. A child in school has misbehaved. It’s a serious matter and there are two teachers involved in helping to resolve the problem, as well as the behaviour support manager, who witnessed the problem. Teacher A is angry and is ready to fill out an exclusion form and says so in front of the child. Teacher B, senior to Teacher A, disagrees and says that it is the fault of the behaviour support manager, who should have handled it differently. None of them can really agree on the best course of action.
In all of this, the errant child looks on, bemused by the fact that the teachers cannot agree between themselves what should be done.
When you train to be a teacher, you learn that undermining other teachers is a cardinal sin. If a colleague has a behaviour issue in which they need support, your role is to stand with them and find a solution. Nothing weakens systems in schools more than lack of public support for each other. Children learn very quickly that if the adults in their lives do not stand united, that they can exploit this weakness, a fact very much exposed on shows like ‘Supernanny’. The indomitable Jo Frost often berates parents for publicly disagreeing with other in front of children on the best way to proceed with displicine in their households. The child, all too often, is then left to play off the adults against each other. Lack of public support weakens boundaries and makes the system penetrable. Multiply this scenario by a hundred and you have a failing school. Multiply it by a society and you have weaknesses in the system that can be exploited by anyone with an agenda.
So, what does it look like when it goes well in a situation when a child has misbehaved? Teacher A and Teacher B put aside their different viewpoints, because they know that jointly discussing the sanction with the child is paramount. They hold conversations, reconciliations between those involved, including the behaviour support manager. Parents are involved because they both need to know and to be held accountable for the child’s actions. Sanctions appropriate to the misdemeanour are applied – and it must be seen as proportionate, or resentment sets in. And then, most importantly, that child has the opportunity to do something positive, to re-engage with the lesson, or the lunch time activity to show that adults do not hold grudges. Again, as most teachers know, the most effective behaviour management is wiping is the slate clean once the process of dealing with misbehaviour is complete.
I suppose it was inevitable that after the riot clean ups and the outward manifestations of public togetherness, the usual political point scoring would take pole position on the news. This is where partisan politics becomes a real sticking point – and yes, I know it’s advantages, but sometimes, you have to imagine what the ‘naughty child’ is thinking when David Cameron and Theresa May are perceived to be unsupportive of the police. You have to imagine the sense of relief that ‘naughty child’ feels when the attention from those who purport to be in control is no longer focused on them. All of a sudden, the debate about whether Bill Bratton should take control of the Metropolitan Police is more important than discussing whether Personal, Social and Health Education lessons should be reformed and taught by specialists, instead of teachers with a bit of space on the timetable. All of a sudden, Michael Gove verbally attacking Harriet Harman on Newsnight gains more attention than whether the Citizenship curriculum is adequate for our modern society.
When are we going to start talking about our curriculum and what happens every day in the best schools and in the most effective homes? I remember when Citizenship was introduced – I was pleased to see that the concept of being part of society was being approached; fast forward eight or ten years and maybe you can feel my frustration when an exam paper from 2011 only really tackles historical events and the intricacies of European legislation. Is this truly what we should be teaching? Don’t get me wrong, I know some amazing Citizenship teachers who really know how to make the best of the curriculum in front of them, but now questions must be asked about how we can move forward in creating citizens. I have seen Citizenship fall off the agenda because our government decided that as a subject, it doesn’t count towards the measure of whether a school is successful or not.
By assigning blame and by criticising the actions of those involved in the riots, either as rioters, police or politicians, we lose focus on what is really important. More than ever, people need to see a united front and political wrangling ought to take second place to real conversations about how we proceed and who is involved in that move forward. Big thinking doesn’t involve blame and no one leads a movement when they are distracted by the petty point-scoring of one leader against another. Some people may argue that Ed Miliband is doing just that by beginning conversations with residents in Hackney. I wish him luck – mostly in ensuring that those conversations are used to create something useful. Because, as most teachers know, words without actions just show you up as ineffective and hardly worth being listened to.