Sylvia Thomas taught in many rough schools throughout the Seventies without ever needing to raise her voice to keep control.
In the Eighties, she left teaching and began producing educational programmes for the BBC. She spent much of her time in schools and thought she was seeing a realistic picture of classroom discipline: it was, she believed, not the acute problem some claimed.
But then, last autumn, she returned to education as a supply teacher. She was so shocked by what she saw that she joined forces with the award-winning veteran documentary maker, Roger Graef, to expose it. ‘Most people are talking about low-level disruption in schools but very few get to see it,’ she said. ‘In only two schools out of the 18 at which I taught was there anything even resembling the acceptable level of disruption a supply teacher would expect. Every other school I taught at reduced me to tears,’ she added. ‘I would be hoarse with shouting and desperate not to go back the next day.’
Thomas spent six months recording the chaos of classrooms in state schools across the country using hidden cameras without the knowledge of the schools, parents or students involved. The result, Classroom Chaos, will be shown on Channel Five on Wednesday. The channel will tell the schools they have appeared in the controversial programme the day after it is screened.
…the schools were chosen randomly by Thomas’s supply teacher agencies, and most had been identified by Ofsted as being average or better than average.
‘The situation was so constant that we can confidently say anti-social behaviour is an everyday reality in classrooms across Britain,’ he added. ‘It is an appaling situation and one which must not be allowed to continue: education is being strangled.‘
Thomas’s experiences included:
her classroom being vandalised during a break time, with windows smashed and glass thrown around the room, books destroyed and desks overturned;
boys openly using mobile phones to download pornography, accessing obscene websites on school computers and making serious sexual suggestions to her;
a pupil accusing her of hitting him, and threatening to report her to the police and sue her;
having to stand guard by the classroom door to prevent students walking out.
‘These were the most dramatic incidents but it was the constant, low-level disruptions that ground me down,’ said Thomas. ‘Just getting the children to take off their coats and open their bags was a struggle I often lost.
‘Most of the time, it was as though I did not even exist: they would behave exactly like it was break time, sitting with their backs to me, talking over me, throwing things at each other and getting into fights. There was nothing I could do to get their attention. My role was simply one of crowd control. I felt useless and inadequate,’
Thomas estimates that, on average, she failed to teach anything at all in four out of six lessons a day. Experienced teachers to whom she spoke confirmed that they lose around two to three months a year of effective teaching through struggling to control antisocial classroom behaviour.