South China Morning Post 31 March 2012 Chris Taylor
British science teacher Peter Harvey's attack on a teenage student with a dumbbell - while shouting 'die, die, die' - made headlines worldwide last month.
But, if the news was shocking, it also drew back the curtain on frontline teaching conditions in British schools. A little more than 20 years ago, an inquiry by the British government found that about 2 per cent of teachers had been on the receiving end of violence from students. Fast forward to 2008, and police in Britain were called on to deal with violent crimes in schools more than 7,300 times. Last year, Britain's Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found in a survey that 25 per cent of teachers had been physically assaulted by students.
One primary school teacher told the compilers of the survey: 'A six-year-old completely trashed the staff room, put a knife through a computer screen, attacked staff and we had to call the police. Another six-year-old attacked staff and pupils with the teacher's scissors.'
With nearly 60 per cent of teachers responding that student behaviour had become worse over the past five years, 50-year-old science teacher Harvey walked free from a Nottingham court. The judge acknowledged that the highly experienced teacher had broken down due to stress and depression amid mounting disobedience by his students. Despite the fact that the 14-year-old victim of Harvey's attack - one of a group of students who had been taunting the teacher and secretly videotaping his reactions - suffered a fractured skull and bleeding in the brain, the jury took just two hours to clear the teacher.
'The British judicial system demonstrated both wisdom and mercy,' the Daily Telegraph wrote. The newspaper said colleagues and former pupils had described Harvey as 'an inspiring teacher, who cared deeply for his pupils', and that a series of events - including being shoved by a pupil and pushed into a bush by another - had driven him into depression. Ironically, about a month earlier, the ATL had released another survey, revealing that teachers had insufficient training to cope with classroom violence.
While the ATL admitted that the Department for Children, Schools and Families had specific guidelines for teachers on permissible responses to violent situations in the classroom, it said many teachers did not know how to interpret them. 'Violent confrontations can erupt very, very quickly . . . they [teachers] need to be clear about what sort of steps they can take to try to stop the situation from escalating, if they have to physically intervene and how, in fact, they do that,' Sharon Liburd, from the ATL, said.
But British teachers and parents publicly questioned how the country's comprehensive education system could have turned into a battlefield.
Secondary school teacher Frances Childs - editorialising in the Daily Mail online in aftermath of the Harvey incident - said what had happened was 'no surprise', and she blamed the government.
'The government's policy of inclusion - whereby even extremely disturbed and aggressive children are taught in mainstream schools - is largely to blame,' she wrote. 'Special schools - where children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties were educated in tiny classes by teachers trained to deal with their complex needs - have been closed.'
Childs also argued that schools and teachers have limited powers when it comes to controlling unruly students. If students are expelled on a Friday, she says, they can simply turn up at another comprehensive school on Monday. Corporal punishment has been banned, and the standard response to disruptive behaviour in the classroom is to put students into 'anger management' courses.
'Although my colleagues and I accept that what Peter Harvey did was wrong, there can't be a state school teacher in the country who doesn't at some level understand exactly why he did what he did,' she concluded.