Schools now expel pupils as young as three. Are children so bad? No – it's adults' fault.

I first became disturbed about children’s education when my wife and I were looking for a school for our son, then four years old. What surprised me was the passion that the subject of schooling provoked. Some of our friends treated us to horror stories about classrooms in which bullying and violence were the norm and teachers struggled to keep control.

My initial response was scepticism. My research indicated that, while teenagers could threaten the wellbeing of others, the management of primary-school pupils was a largely straightforward challenge. I was taken aback when, during the course of conducting interviews with nursery and primary teachers, I discovered that some of them actually did feel intimidated by the violent behaviour of pupils.

There was a time when the expulsion of children from school was a measure of last resort against hardened troublemakers and recalcitrant teenagers. Today it is not simply the violent antisocial behaviour of secondary-school rebels that represents a serious challenge to classroom authority but also, apparently, the conduct of toddlers and children in primary education.

Government figures show that more than 1,000 children aged four or younger were suspended from state schools and nurseries in England last year. Children as young as two have been suspended for physical assault or threatening behaviour towards an adult, and three- and four-year-olds have been expelled for “racism, sexual misconduct and theft”.

I was so intrigued, I asked a researcher to dig deeper into the statistics. Across English primary schools 390 children were sent home in 2007 for a racist offence, 240 were suspended for sexual misconduct and 40 young pupils got into trouble for drugs and alcohol-related incidents.

A freedom of information survey of 100 local authorities threw up some worrying cases. For example, in Birmingham in 2007 a five-year-old reception-class pupil was suspended for sexual misconduct; in west London a child of the same age was expelled for attacking a classmate. In the same year four girls from primary schools in Leicestershire were suspended for sexual misconduct and a 10-year-old pupil was suspended in East Sussex for sexually assaulting an adult.

Some young children are being suspended for acts labelled racist, too. In Wolverhampton, we found, an eight-year-old child was suspended for a racist offence. So what is really going on here? Have six-year-old pupils suddenly turned into sexual predators or racist zealots?

I just don’t believe it. These figures say more about the mindset of teachers and education experts than about the moral decline of young children. Today some schools regard kiss-chase as a form of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Yet my inquiries suggest that the current obsession with the sexual and other behaviour of youngsters is driven by a need to find a way to control children, other than by exercising child authority. Instead of simply telling youngsters off, or explaining to them why their remark or action was wrong, teachers crank up the machinery of warning-letters to parents, followed by a suspension from school.

There is little doubt that in Britain’s schools adult authority is in trouble: many professionals find it difficult to gain the respect of even very young children. According to the school census, far more primary-school children are expelled for verbal abuse or threatening adults than for threatening their fellow pupils.

Sam Harris has been a reception teacher in a primary school in Manchester since 1996. She is scathing about some of her colleagues, who, instead of openly challenging bad behaviour and telling children off for childish misdemeanours, “hide behind” petty rules. She fears that her old-school style of hands-on management has alienated her from her colleagues. In her opinion they are “scared to do what they know in their heart of hearts is right”.

Why are teachers so worried about exercising authority over their charges? Many complain that they are reluctant to punish misbehaviour in case their action is misinterpreted. Sarah Poole packed in her job as an assistant at a nursery in west London after she was reprimanded for raising her voice and pointing her finger at a child who had just bitten her. She felt she was not trusted to do her job and resented being treated as a “powerless servant”. She tells me that “I couldn’t even tell them off without writing a report about the incident”. Her colleagues in primary education share her sense of powerlessness.

As part of my research, I analysed the language that teachers use to describe the behavioural problems of young children. I found that it said more about the confusion and defensiveness of adults than about the children’s conduct. For example, when a four-year-old calls a classmate gay, is it right for his teacher to call that homophobia? One result of this confusion is that nurseries are not sure where to draw the line that divides adulthood from childhood. As a result, educators treat toddlers and primary school children according to the moral standards of adult society. In this topsy-turvy world, it should not be a surprise to find that three- and four-year-olds have been expelled for racism, sexual misconduct and theft. It’s a sign of adult failings that the childish exploration of one another’s bodies is being interpreted according to adult standards of sexual behaviour and that a government-sponsored agency warns nursery staff to be alert for racist remarks among toddlers.

The kids are all right. It’s their teachers who aren’t. Suspending toddlers represents an irresponsible example of how those who should know better evade confronting the real issue of classroom discipline.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at Kent University. His book Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating is published by Continuum Press


Source: Times Online –