At the chalkface: Breaking Point


So he yells and yells and yells. And then he yells and swears. Then he throws a chair across the room. It hits the teacher’s arm...

The Teacher – let’s call her Ms Swansong – is an NQT, excellent, professional, and having a pretty good lesson with a pretty tough 9th year. She’s reading Robert Swindells’ Stone Cold and most of the class are really enjoying it. A couple might be “humming and fidgeting”, but unless you’re Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Clint Eastwood of Ofsted, this low-level disturbance isn’t serious. The only real static comes from a high-level Nutter.

The Bad Pupil – let’s call him Connor – is disturbed, distracted, dysfunctional, and trying to dismantle the lesson. He doesn’t listen at all. He plays with some rosary beads and just shouts. 

Why? Can we blame his background? It’s the present Full English Nightmare – with all the perpetual anxieties and terrors, consequent on the insolence of poverty.

But so what? This excuses nothing. Not according to Sir Michael, who recently pronounced that Ms Swansong must control Connor with Zero Tolerance, with machismo teaching. But Connor is not “unruly”, he’s not a naughty scamp, who can be thus “controlled”. He’s a migraine-inducing maniac. He doesn’t do “boundaries”. He’s Serious Damage. He is extremely angry and dimly apprehends that he’s not part of the Chancellor’s vision, and is making sure no-one else will be. 

So he yells and yells and yells. And then he yells and swears. Then he throws a chair across the room. It hits the teacher’s arm.

“I’ve ’ad it wiv people like you!”

The Good Pupil – let’s call her Ella – is curious, bright, promising, and having an increasingly lousy time. She listens hard to the novel Stone Cold. It’s enthralling, especially the way Ms Swansong reads it. But Ella is on the cusp of things. She needs a C grade to fit into the Chancellor’s bright Vision. A “D” will doom her. And Connor keeps screwing things up. Why is he permitted to do so? He is frightening and weird and so nasty. She watches the chair hit the teacher’s arm. 

“I’ve ‘ad it wiv people like you!”

And now Ella has had it with him. She curses him and leaves the room and will bunk off and get suspended and never get that C. Poor Ella. She just wanted some solace, a bit of safety. She was last seen, rolling up by the swings.

So it goes. Connor goes to Inclusion and then a PRU, but it’s probably too late. And Ms Swansong? She goes to the A&E. After four hours, she’s told she has a “hairline fracture”. She goes back to her flat, has a terminal argument with her boyfriend, and packs in the teaching. A little damage goes along way.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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