Friday was a special day for children at Christ the Sower as we participated in Young Voices for the first time as a school. It was a wonderful and exhilarating time for the 57 children from the school who were a drop in the ocean of the 7 548 children who attended the O2 arena on Friday night and the army of adults who were helping them. I am not a crowd person, but being part of such an enormous performing crowd was thrilling. More than anything, watching the children’s excitement and unrestrained participation in the event, with words (mostly) fully learnt and all the actions approximated to, was just a joy. What was also a joy was their deep-seated respect for us, for the event, for the adults directing them (stewarding and organisation was of the highest calibre), for one another and for the material they had learnt for the night. It is getting to be a cliche, probably, but we always get a great deal of satisfaction as adults seeing Christ the Sower children behave and work respectfully in public. In this case, my great thanks in particular to Christine Richards, Emma Underwood and Emily Marshall who have insisted that as participants in this great choir, the children realised their responsibilities to us and to themselves as singers and as young people.
On the same day, the ATL, a union which has gained much serious respect in recent years through the diligent and careful advocacy of Mary Bousted, its general secretary, issued a report on pupil behaviour in the classroom, with “4 out of 10” teachers having suffered violence from a child in the past year – this the headline figure in the BBC report of the ATL survey. I don’t know how many of the ATL members responded – the NASUWT published a similar “violence is increasing in the classroom” survey last year with a handful of respondents – nor whether the 4/10 statistic is of those that responded or from the membership as a whole. The survey places “lack of parental boundaries” as the key reason that violence is increasing, but I wonder whether as a profession we could do more to help ourselves.
We see levels of disengagement between parents and children rising over the years – a lot of this is to do with the use of mobile technology and the things we rely on to keep children “entertained” – and there will doubtless be greater issues of attachment/detachment in parent/child relationships until family and story and eating together begins to replace the ubiquitous screen culture (Borgmann calls this the “device paradigm”) that will prove in the long term to be a destabilising menace to our society. Half of those in the ATL survey put the violence down to “pupil mental health issues” and Mary Bousted rightly criticised the government’s lack of funding for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which are now in disrepute for no fault of their own.
However, watching children’s attitudes and conduct on Friday night gave me pause. I was conscious after having to speak to a group of our Y6 boys about conduct that was a little more than boisterous, of how high the standards we set, have become. Watching some other schools’ behaviour culture showed me that children really were responding to their teachers’ expectations (because that is what children do!) – children running and pushing each other in sight of their teachers, children fighting in the public areas outside the arena, any amount of foul and abusive language, and the ubiquitous sight of adults standing around whilst those in their care were unattended to or allowed to behave in ways in public that parents would have been embarrassed about. This was particularly noticeable in the way that David Lawrence, the conductor, on more than one occasion, had to insist that teachers didn’t take out whole rows of children to the toilets during rehearsals (having asked politely twice). There was a level of disrespect from some adults that made us wonder at what the school culture might have been. These were in a minority, I stress, and many other schools were looking on wide-eyed at the lack of teacher control in that minority. But it was embarrassing to see, because we all bear the stigma of it afterwards. In one classic moment, the teachers from a school in our block of seats decided to leave before our block had been dismissed from the stage, thus bunging up the whole carefully stewarded system outside the arena. We just sat there trying not to make too many pointed comments…. This might sound like nitpicking, but it was an act of disrespect for a carefully managed system that had a very negative impact on others – and it was led by adults, not children. On such things we depend for a life of peace, and the organisers, bless them, know this better than anyone.
So, my thanks to our teaching staff at Christ the Sower for insisting over a number of years that the standards we set are worth keeping and should be shown in public as well as in school, and thank you too to those of our parents who cooperate with us so fully in ensuring that their children are a credit to them as well as to us.