23 JUNE 1973, Page 14



Spare the rod and..?

David Wyn Williams

The recent spate of reports of muggings and beatings in schools

has rightly brought the problem of the growing violence there to the forefront of the national consciousness. Yet at the same time,i teachers are finding themselves in, a position where disciplining pup-,

us achieves nothing other than a series of retaliations or com plaints. Indeed, the powerlessness of teaching staffs in secondary and comprehensive schools is such that the morale of many teachers is sagging. Many are leaving the profession, in some cases preferring to be unemployed or retired early. Some schools, particularly in east London, find it extremely hard to fill the resulting staff vacancies.

Superficially there would seem to be an obvious connection between these two facets of school discipline. Likewise there is the obvious answer — bring back the cane. Such an answer, though possibly ameliorating some situations, completely misses underlying factors which have disturbing implications for the teacher and the education system.

In many ways it would seem that there has been a reassessment of the role, function, and authority of the teacher in recent years. Even more than before, from the point of view of prospective entrants, the profession is regarded in the light of the Shavian comment, "He who can does. He who cannot, teaches." It is a cry of despair of an undergraduate if, when contemplating the uses to which his degree will be put, he feels that it is " no use except for teaching." Existing members of the profession (many of whom are married women anyway) give the job a low priority and seek a post in Cornwall, the Lake District or similar spots where they may seek outside enjoyment. The salary is certainly not tempting, except as a second income. Young teachers often find they are unable to buy a house of any shape or form, even where both husband and wife are in fulltime posts. Apart from the few who become headmasters of sizable schools, the career structure holds little attraction. A low graded or non-graded teacher will probably be forced to send his wife out to work, or take evening classes and mark endless examination scripts, to bolster up his low income.

Individual teachers are also being subjected to increasing criticism from parents. In recent times, every teacher has learnt to fear the pupil who possesses 'parent immunity.' If the teacher seeks to discipline the child, he does it in the sure knowledge that the result will be the appearance the following day of a furious parent threatening the teacher with dire consequences for daring to assault his son. As might be expected, pupils in this position play up to it fully.

In some areas where schools have a mixed racial intake for instance, any attempt to discipline immigrants is construed as racial prejudice. For every immigrant punished, the teacher must therefore punish an English boy. In one case elsewhere, a pupil was disciplined on suspicion of stealing money from the school cloakrooms. The result was a letter from the father's solicitor, warning the school of the legal implications of a recurrence of this (i.e. the school's) lamentable behaviour. On the next occasion the pupil was caught the police were called in, and the student was as a result convicted in the juvenile court. This time the school received another letter from the solicitor, reminding them of the laws of defamation, and the consequences of daring to mention the conviction. In such a climate the teacher is well aware that, like a police officer, he is peculiarly prone to complaints concerning the propriety of his conduct. As a result the teacher is forced to adopt a permanent defensive position.

A third factor questioning the teacher's role is the political nature of the employer, the local education authority. The cam paigns for this year's county council elections are evidence of the extent to which education is a highly sensitive political issue. Local councils have for years been the arenas for fights about how a school should be organised, at what age transfers should take place, whether teachers should be able to cane or detain their reluctant charges, and other issues that can affect radically the relation ship between the teacher and the pupil. Another factor which enters the equation here is the assistance or interference from colleges of education. Much of the assistance is welcome, but some of the advice (" Don't sit behind the desk, sit on it ") is resented, and is regarded as coming from a third Shavian classification, those who, because they cannot teach, teach teachers. A constantly changing flow of half-thought out ideas concerning the methods of doing this or that result in children being subjected to shifting educational regimes, and their teachers to corresponding strains. Faced with this pressure from all sides, the teachers may find all his options closed by external agencies. He may well be faced with the task of teaching a large class of unwilling pupils without any sanction behind his authority, and this in an educational context he feels inappropriate. One escape route from this dilemma is to seek the co-operation of the pupils on the basis of the old adage that if you can't beat them, you join them. One is, after all, dealing with human beings, not with a herd of sheep. The pupils should be encouraged to think for themselves and to follow up their own interests. A far less positive way of escape, however, is for the teacher to give up any attempt to teach, and to assume the much less taxing role of preventing more than a modicum of disorder in the class, and inventing ways of whiling away the hours until the telly starts in the evening. This will be attractive particularly to those who must deal with the pupils kept compulsorily in the education system. In many cases the rise in the school leaving age without the provision of extra accommodation or any attempt to define the objectives of the extra year.

Even within the classroom, the teacher's role as general dogsbody does little to enhance his status. It took industrial action to make clear that it is not the teacher's job to supervise lunch sessions, and carry out similar mundane jobs. Yet half an hour a day can well be spent by an infant teacher in doing up buttons and tying shoelaces, not to mention the time spent cutting paper,moving furniture etc.

British society is unquestionably wedded to the basic principle that knowledge in all its forms is valuable in itself, and to the equally fundamental proposition that all members of our society should receive a certain minimum of education as a matter of compulsion. But the agents who have to carry into effect this difficult brief ought to receive more consideration. So often, the politician's contribution to the discussion is the mouthing of sterile slogans such as "Freedom of choice" or "Equality of opportunity," while the parental contribution, which surely should be major, is confined to venting vicariously injured pride when a son or daughter is found to be in error.

We have come a long way from Robert Lowe's simple ideas of paying teachers by results in the three ' R's.' But current trends require serious thought. We ought to determine with clarity just what role we ask our teachers to fulfill, and then see that they are given both the resources and the authority to carry out the remit. And we should ensure that they can exercise the authority. For unless we do, the morale of the teaching profession will suffer severely.