I HAVE a double interest in the upcoming ballot of EIS members in an Aberdeen secondary school. Teachers there are seriously concerned by rising levels of threat and violence and will vote on possible strike action.

Firstly, I’m a former pupil of the school in question. Secondly, I spent a substantial part of my career working in similar schools and situations. I have no detailed knowledge of what has led the teachers’ union to consider such an unusual step. Unusual yes, but not unprecedented.

In May 2021, the NASUWT union warned violent behaviour towards teachers was “becoming normalised”. Earlier this year the same union threatened industrial action in a Glasgow school where staff were “increasingly worried for their personal safety.”

To the outsider, it must seem as if good order in our schools is on the point of collapse. Yet, without minimising the worries of staff in the schools concerned, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

One of the few advantages of being elderly is having a long-term perspective. Fifty years ago, schools were no safer or less violent than they are today. Indeed, I could argue today’s schools are generally calmer and less threatening places. The pre-comprehensive, junior secondary where I started, was no tranquil seat of learning. Aggression and occasional violence were part and parcel of the daily rough and tumble. Pupil on pupil, rarely pupil on teacher but, more frequently, teacher on pupil.

Unreasonably frequent corporal punishment did normalise violence in classrooms and corridors. I witnessed “discipline” that if repeated today, would lead to a court appearance. Playground fights were a regular if not daily occurrence. What passed for order was maintained through the threat or application of violence. What is different though is today’s teachers work in a hugely changed social and educational environment.

Authority and discipline in classrooms and schools can no longer be established and maintained through unsubtle coercion and corporal punishment. Authority, especially the “because I say so” variety, is far less likely to be accepted unquestioningly. The “very small percentage” at the root of the problem in Aberdeen are probably beyond the control of parents and police. Additionally, today’s parents are much more likely to take their offspring’s part than was the case in the past.

Consequently, today’s teachers require different qualities and skills to establish and maintain their authority. When working in schools that might have been considered “challenging”, I wondered why some teachers experienced fewer problems with youngsters who were kicking over the traces elsewhere. There was no silver bullet, but there were common threads.

Those who experienced fewest difficulties tended to establish their authority through force of personality and positive relationships. They usually knew much about youngsters, their interests, and lives outside school. I recall a five-foot female colleague who experienced few problems, was widely respected, and deemed by even the most disaffected to be “okay.” High praise indeed. It wasn’t always the case, but the most challenging usually responded positively to the “personal touch.” The secret of her success was providing youngsters with challenge and enjoyment and most crucially, a taste of success and a sense of pride in their achievements.

Pupils causing serious problems aren’t daft. They recognise a system, curriculum and assessments that set them up to fail. The relevance of what they are learning escapes them. It’s unsurprising some vent their frustration and maintain their “street cred” through disruptive and aggressive behaviour. Without excusing those behaviours, many of the perpetrators are being failed by half-baked, centralised reforms of the curriculum and assessment. In the modern age, the disaffected no longer willingly accept experiences that seem pointless, offering little prospect of success and enjoyment.

As with closing the attainment gap, there is no simple answer. Indeed, the two issues are closely related and need addressed in tandem. Sure, removing troublesome pupils can provide respite for hard-pressed teachers, but it’s not the long-term solution. The Scottish Government needs to recognise its responsibility to review the totality of the school experiences of the disruptive, the marginalised and the left behind. One size doesn’t fit all.

It’s no coincidence the Aberdeen school “enjoys” the lowest levels of attainment in the country. Otherwise, the situation can only worsen, leaving teachers in the firing line. Literally.

Read more by Doug Marr:

No wonder teachers are wary of school trips

Children and parents will be the big losers in teachers’ strikes