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Headteachers in England tell of worsening behaviour of pupils – and parents | Schools

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Headteachers in England have described a culture of non-compliance among pupils, as talks were held to try to avert further strikes at a school in Kent where staff walked out over student behaviour.

The Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey hit the headlines last week after members of the National Education Union took strike action over fears for their safety, complaining of assaults and threats of violence.

While the problems at the school appear particularly acute, Guardian interviews with school leaders elsewhere revealed widespread concern about deteriorating behaviour among pupils, coupled with a lack of support for school policies from some parents, both issues highlighted in the Ofsted annual report last week.

Whereas once a parent who was called in to school to discuss a behaviour issue would unquestioningly support the teacher’s position, headteachers said they were now seeing parents side with their child in defiance of the school, while others organise and take to social media to challenge school decisions.

“Behaviour has got worse, but what we don’t get is any support from the parents,” said one head of a secondary school in the Midlands, who did not want to be named. “They don’t want their children being sanctioned. They question more than they support.”

Student behaviour is now “completely different” from what it used to be, she said.

“In the past students were in lessons. They might be disruptive in lessons and you’d have to deal with that kind of behaviour.

“But there’s a new thing coming up in schools in the last year and a half – students are turning up to school, but they don’t go into any lessons and they just wander around the building. They want to come for the social, but they don’t want to go into their lessons.

“So then I have to put a sanction in place and I’m having to suspend or put them in a removal room. But most of the time they don’t comply and the parents have no sway with the children either.”

While there used to be the odd incident of a child swearing at a member of staff, since Covid the Midlands headteacher said it had become far more widespread, with pupils telling staff to “fuck off”, calling male members of staff “paedo” and making rude personalised comments towards teachers like: “What’s wrong with your skin?”

“It’s embarrassing,” she said. “It’s humiliating, and it doesn’t make you feel competent in the classroom when they’re attacking you personally.”

A number of her teachers are off sick due to stress as a result.

There are more fights between pupils and more disruption from the setting off of fire alarms. “But for us, the biggest issue is students just refusing to follow instructions point blank.”

In some cases when a child refuses to leave a classroom, the whole of the class has to move elsewhere instead.

Suspensions have gone up 40% this term over the same period last year, she said. Elsewhere the increase has been even higher. Glyn Potts, headteacher of Saint John Henry Newman RC College in Oldham, said suspensions had doubled at his school, from 81 days last year to 161 days this year.

“I don’t necessarily think behaviour has got worse,” said Potts. “What I would say is the level of need and the level of complexity of young people has increased exponentially.”

Unmet special needs, mental health issues and persistent post-pandemic absence are all creating tensions in schools, which can result in breaches of the behaviour code.

“In the past we had naughty boys and girls who did things that were naughty,” Potts added. “Now it’s just far more complex than that.”

In addition, external services such as child and adolescent mental health services no longer have the resources to properly support children.

“I’ve been a head for 20 years,” one school leader in the north-west said. “Over the years I’ve got used to teachers saying behaviour’s getting worse and I’ve never really bought into that, until the last 18 months.”

Suspensions and permanent exclusions are up in his school too, not generally for big one-off incidents but for an accumulation of episodes of non-compliance.

“We simply cannot get the students to go into the classrooms. If we actually manage to get them in there, they walk out on the pretext of going to the toilet and they don’t ever come back.”

Nick Hurn, CEO at Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, which has schools in Durham, Gateshead, Northumberland and Sunderland, said it was still only a small minority causing problems in schools.

“Since Covid, people seem to be far less tolerant, certainly parents, and that communicates itself to students as well,” he said.

“So you do get a little bit more awkward behaviour from more children than you used to get. If they’ve seen the parents don’t have any respect or regard for school rules, why should they?

“When I first started as a headteacher back in 2002, I can remember some quite horrible incidents that happened. What seems to be more noticeable now is the amount of people that jump on the bandwagon on social media.”

Wendy Exton, national executive member of the NASUWT teaching union, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after working in a pupil referral unit. In an interview with BBC Radio 4 World at One on Monday, she said she had been physically attacked and suffered sexualised comments from pupils.

“Nobody goes to work to be threatened or abused in this way and the problem has been getting worse for a number of years,” she said, adding that it had become more common since lockdown.

“I think part of it is you’ve got children who’ve been left at home on screens and unsupervised, and they haven’t had the day-to-day boundaries and routines of schooling that they got used to.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is vital that schools manage pupils’ behaviour well so they can provide calm, safe and supportive environments.

“Our ongoing £10m behaviour hubs programme aims to support up to 700 schools between 2021 and 2024 in improving their behaviour by partnering them with selected exemplary lead schools and multi-academy trusts.

“Additionally, our updated Behaviour in Schools guidance provides advice on creating whole-school cultures which explicitly sets out what good behaviour looks like, and we are banning mobile phone use in schools to provide further support.”


Headteachers in England have described a culture of non-compliance among pupils, as talks were held to try to avert further strikes at a school in Kent where staff walked out over student behaviour.

The Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey hit the headlines last week after members of the National Education Union took strike action over fears for their safety, complaining of assaults and threats of violence.

While the problems at the school appear particularly acute, Guardian interviews with school leaders elsewhere revealed widespread concern about deteriorating behaviour among pupils, coupled with a lack of support for school policies from some parents, both issues highlighted in the Ofsted annual report last week.

Whereas once a parent who was called in to school to discuss a behaviour issue would unquestioningly support the teacher’s position, headteachers said they were now seeing parents side with their child in defiance of the school, while others organise and take to social media to challenge school decisions.

“Behaviour has got worse, but what we don’t get is any support from the parents,” said one head of a secondary school in the Midlands, who did not want to be named. “They don’t want their children being sanctioned. They question more than they support.”

Student behaviour is now “completely different” from what it used to be, she said.

“In the past students were in lessons. They might be disruptive in lessons and you’d have to deal with that kind of behaviour.

“But there’s a new thing coming up in schools in the last year and a half – students are turning up to school, but they don’t go into any lessons and they just wander around the building. They want to come for the social, but they don’t want to go into their lessons.

“So then I have to put a sanction in place and I’m having to suspend or put them in a removal room. But most of the time they don’t comply and the parents have no sway with the children either.”

While there used to be the odd incident of a child swearing at a member of staff, since Covid the Midlands headteacher said it had become far more widespread, with pupils telling staff to “fuck off”, calling male members of staff “paedo” and making rude personalised comments towards teachers like: “What’s wrong with your skin?”

“It’s embarrassing,” she said. “It’s humiliating, and it doesn’t make you feel competent in the classroom when they’re attacking you personally.”

A number of her teachers are off sick due to stress as a result.

There are more fights between pupils and more disruption from the setting off of fire alarms. “But for us, the biggest issue is students just refusing to follow instructions point blank.”

In some cases when a child refuses to leave a classroom, the whole of the class has to move elsewhere instead.

Suspensions have gone up 40% this term over the same period last year, she said. Elsewhere the increase has been even higher. Glyn Potts, headteacher of Saint John Henry Newman RC College in Oldham, said suspensions had doubled at his school, from 81 days last year to 161 days this year.

“I don’t necessarily think behaviour has got worse,” said Potts. “What I would say is the level of need and the level of complexity of young people has increased exponentially.”

Unmet special needs, mental health issues and persistent post-pandemic absence are all creating tensions in schools, which can result in breaches of the behaviour code.

“In the past we had naughty boys and girls who did things that were naughty,” Potts added. “Now it’s just far more complex than that.”

In addition, external services such as child and adolescent mental health services no longer have the resources to properly support children.

“I’ve been a head for 20 years,” one school leader in the north-west said. “Over the years I’ve got used to teachers saying behaviour’s getting worse and I’ve never really bought into that, until the last 18 months.”

Suspensions and permanent exclusions are up in his school too, not generally for big one-off incidents but for an accumulation of episodes of non-compliance.

“We simply cannot get the students to go into the classrooms. If we actually manage to get them in there, they walk out on the pretext of going to the toilet and they don’t ever come back.”

Nick Hurn, CEO at Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, which has schools in Durham, Gateshead, Northumberland and Sunderland, said it was still only a small minority causing problems in schools.

“Since Covid, people seem to be far less tolerant, certainly parents, and that communicates itself to students as well,” he said.

“So you do get a little bit more awkward behaviour from more children than you used to get. If they’ve seen the parents don’t have any respect or regard for school rules, why should they?

“When I first started as a headteacher back in 2002, I can remember some quite horrible incidents that happened. What seems to be more noticeable now is the amount of people that jump on the bandwagon on social media.”

Wendy Exton, national executive member of the NASUWT teaching union, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after working in a pupil referral unit. In an interview with BBC Radio 4 World at One on Monday, she said she had been physically attacked and suffered sexualised comments from pupils.

“Nobody goes to work to be threatened or abused in this way and the problem has been getting worse for a number of years,” she said, adding that it had become more common since lockdown.

“I think part of it is you’ve got children who’ve been left at home on screens and unsupervised, and they haven’t had the day-to-day boundaries and routines of schooling that they got used to.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is vital that schools manage pupils’ behaviour well so they can provide calm, safe and supportive environments.

“Our ongoing £10m behaviour hubs programme aims to support up to 700 schools between 2021 and 2024 in improving their behaviour by partnering them with selected exemplary lead schools and multi-academy trusts.

“Additionally, our updated Behaviour in Schools guidance provides advice on creating whole-school cultures which explicitly sets out what good behaviour looks like, and we are banning mobile phone use in schools to provide further support.”

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