There is a fear in society that without constant vigilance and punitive responses to all misdemeanours, anarchy will triumph. It is an obsession of the conservative and the under-confident.
The recent teachers’ union conference motion, condemning “the criminal behaviour of a minority of pupils on the final day” and urging the pursuit of “criminal and civil actions to hold the perpetrators of such offences to account”, fits that pattern.
The pranks in which sixth years indulge on their final day in school can be ridiculous, but excitement at leaving behind the constraints of school, is entirely natural and appropriate.
Several friends and I, 45 years ago, on our final day at an august west of Scotland school, left our last prize-giving, very publicly ripped our uniform ties from our necks and, from the town-centre bridge, threw them into the river below. It was disrespectful to an institution which, with all its faults, had served us well and a poor example to younger pupils. Its purpose however was to mark a rite of passage.
Today’s sixth years mark school-leaving with countless ploys. Most of them are exuberant but harmless. They serve the same purpose as the discarding of our ties: they signal enthusiasm at moving to a new stage in life.
Schools where staff and students have mutually respectful relationships will accommodate and manage such carnivals.
Serious damage to life, limb or property are never to be treated lightly, but with common sense, sixth years will agree the limits of their leaving day events and will police them themselves. Grounded teachers understand this.
When therefore, sixth-year behaviour on one day of the year dominates teacher union debates, there are at least four possible explanations.
The first is that teachers have no urgent issues to pursue with local and national management. With Curriculum for Excellence, management restructuring and budget reductions, that’s hardly the case.
The second is that Scottish teachers have lost their sense of proportion, have little empathy for young people and operate in a state of a paranoia. All my observations and experience tell me, with the exception of a tiny number, that is not the case.
The third is a very Scottish, middle-aged mind-set, focused on the sinful proclivities of fallen humanity – and for that minority, all sin is bad but youthful sin doubly so: again however, the view of a tiny minority
The fourth is that one union is attempting to position itself on the macho end of the professional spectrum, determined to defend teachers against any threat – imaginary or exaggerated: in other words, part of the war of words in inter-union rivalry.
Alas, I reckon the fourth explanation is nearest the truth.
Here’s a challenge for those whose knickers have been twisted.
What is it about the experience we offer, that 18-year-olds in a very few schools feel so liberated on leaving that they behave outrageously? These are young adults who can vote, marry, serve in the armed forces. Moreover, they are young adults of whom we have had charge for six years.
Perhaps part of the problem is that schools continued to treat them in S6 as they treated them in S1 – as children: no surprise then if they live down to expectations. Indeed the root of the problem may be that no rational young adult should be expected to operate within a regime geared to managing the less rational impulses of their 12 and 13-year-old younger siblings.
We are still operating a 19th century model of schooling designed when only tiny numbers remained within it to the age of 18. Time to change models.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.