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In a strange editorial decision, The Observer decided yesterday to dedicate its front page splash and nearly three full internal pages to research by the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) which claimed to show that children and their parents are not only vicious and nasty but getting worse. The Today programme featured the same survey this morning. For the media to report the ATL’s claims so uncritically is lazy and reactionary.   

Twenty five years ago, when working for the teachers’ union NASUWT, I undertook a survey about pupil violence. We sent a questionnaire to every one of the 150,000 or so members and then analysed the responses. Of course, this is a completely unreliable method. Teachers who had experienced violence were much more likely to return the questionnaire than those who hadn’t. Not that this stopped us sending out press releases claiming ‘one in three’ teachers has been the subject of some kind of assault. The media lapped it up. I remember being in London and seeing lurid billboard headlines about classroom violence being out of control and only later realising it was my research that had justified the claims.

I’m sure the ATL research was somewhat more rigorous than mine – although there is no information about methodology on either union or media websites. But I still find the story highly suspect. Asking people whether they think things are ‘getting worse’ and asking them to give examples of bad experiences is a pretty hopeless way of getting a valid picture of reality. It is interesting that none of the coverage seems to feature statistics on actual reported incidents of assault or exclusion. I am pretty sure that data shows a gradual improvement in discipline.

As there is no powerful voice for parents or pupils there is no one to respond to the sweeping assertion that teachers are the victims of a tide of abuse and violence. There is no one to ask, for example, why it is that so many schools are still completely useless (neither interested nor effective) at engaging parents. There are no children to account for the times when hopelessly immature teachers make inappropriate and snide comments to pupils. There is equally no one to explain how powerless parents are when their child is being taught by a clearly incompetent or uncaring teacher.

The survey takes quite a low threshold for parental abuse so maybe I should hold up my own. My older son loves sport so when he had endured two years of virtually no organised activity at his inner city secondary school, I finally rounded on his head of PE about how his lack of commitment and imagination was denying kids the chance to do the one thing that gave many of them a sense of self esteem.

Which is not to say that there is a growing tide of incompetent, child-hating teachers. If anything, my sense is that teachers are getting better, parents are getting more useful feedback on their children’s progress and more schools are taking parental engagement seriously. Not that this would be the picture I would necessarily get if I asked parents to offer random examples of bad teaching or invited them in a questionnaire focussed on school failings to confirm ‘things are getting worse’.

Getting school discipline and relations with parents and guardians right is a challenge. Although some schools work in very difficult areas, the more schools put into positive parental engagement the more they get back. The ATL research tells us nothing except that there continues to be a strong seam of antipathy to children and parents in teachers’ organisations and that that the media will print anything as long as it reinforces the thesis which they are convinced sells their increasingly threadbare offering; namely, that society is falling apart because people like ‘them‘ (not us) are out of control.


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