“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”
These words uttered by Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan explain to Captain Kirk why the Vulcan must sacrifice himself to save the ship. This harrowing moment in my cultural evolution has always stuck with me.
But don’t worry, this is not an attempt to analyse Star Trek philosophy. I do have a serious point to make about teaching. My argument is that Spock’s logical reasoning is lost in our school system, and currently the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.
I am talking specifically about behaviour in secondary schools, and the fact that students who cause major disruption are now put before engaged and committed pupils. Of course, there is always going to be some level of misbehaviour in class – teenagers are teenagers after all, and quadratic equations don’t always set their worlds ablaze. For the most part teachers are good at dealing with this, and young people usually respond in the right way when challenged.
But then there are students for whom this isn’t enough. Take Connor in Year 9, for example. On an average day, he will walk into the classroom shouting and singing loudly. He may even push another student against the wall as he passes. When challenged, he will sit down laughing or launch a volley of expletives at the teacher before being sent to the isolation room. He will get told off by the headteacher and may be sent to an in-house support unit, designed to deal with behavioural problems. Occasionally he will get a temporary exclusion. Then, within a day or two, he is back in the classroom and the cycle begins again.
There are at least 10 more students like Connor in most good schools. Although teachers find these pupils a handful, dealing with them is part of our job. But what about the other 25 kids in my class? Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you are running, out of breath, and getting nowhere. Frustrating does not even begin to describe how that feels every day.
Hailey and Liam turn up for school every day. They are model pupils of average ability. On a good day, they are capable of solid C grades in most of their GCSEs. But they have to sit in a room with three or four Connors, the teacher having to constantly chase, cajole and challenge them until eventually these disruptive students are removed.
They have been learning in this environment for the past three years, and often complain that they can’t focus when Connor is around. They ask why it is that he gets away with as much as he does. My responses are usually generic along the lines of, “You make a valid point and I really don’t know.” Sometimes I might make a good pupil feel better about themselves, “We prefer to spend our time with you guys.” Or more often than not make an attempt to show the Connors of the school some support by saying, “Sometimes the classroom is just not the right environment for him.” But this is often a token gesture. When he is absent, the dynamic of the class is markedly different, with pupils far more settled and engaged. Suddenly it becomes easier for the students to answer questions without fear of an underhand comment. Those that sit on the behavioural fence are no longer pandering to a disruptive audience and therefore knuckle down and actually work harder. Without Connor, it’s no longer uncool to be enthusiastic about learning. Some research has suggested that this improvement is also reflected in attainment.
But what can we do about it? Schools are under pressure now to minimise the number of permanent exclusions and avoid the dreaded red flag of Ofsted. Headteachers try to keep these teenagers in mainstream education to avoid accusations of “poor behaviour” from inspectors, when, really, removing them could be interpreted as adopting a zero-tolerance approach. I would also argue that if given the resources, taking some of these students out of mainstream education might actually give them the specialised support that they often need. The only major drawbacks to this approach are the stigma children undergo when finding themselves in non-mainstream educational settings and often the lack of trained, effective teachers needed to deal with this challenging behaviour.
In an ideal world teachers would be able to offer every individual the specific help that they need. We would spend time with difficult students, stretch the more able and help all those in between. But that would require a huge investment in human resources and teacher time. Schools and outside agencies need more funding to find anything approaching this sort of solution, and with current educational cuts, the situation only seems to be growing worse.
I do not pretend to have all the answers. The truth is there is no magic bullet for this problem but the way we deal with disruptive students must be reviewed. Tough ideas need to be considered. At what point does a school accept that it can no longer provide the resources to cater for all of its students? Since when did it become the right thing to focus on a few disruptive kids at the expense of the rest of the class? We recognise, of course, that there is always a context to consider when a student has serious behavioural problems, and schools and external agencies work together to support young people with these issues. But we often ignore the impact on the students who do not experience these problems yet have to suffer the consequences anyway.
Surely a school has a responsibility to make sound judgements for its entire population, rather than the small group with the greatest needs. I feel more responsible for the results of the students who are trying to achieve because from a teacher’s perspective, my time with them feels better utilised. I feel like I’m making a difference, which surely is the point. If Einstein was correct in his assertion that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then we are truly going insane. The system as it stands is deeply flawed because the needs of the few so clearly outweigh the needs of the many. There is no Vulcan logic here.