Tuesday, March 23, 2010

today : accidents waiting to happen

I cannot help but feel desperately sorry for the parents of Sam Linton, the boy who died of asthma at school due to, to quote the family's lawyer :

"the lack of training, lack of communication between staff, lack of record keeping and a complete absence of common sense" inside his school.

But I also feel sorry for the school staff involved. Lots of teachers, including myself, know what it's like to operate without training, communication and decent record keeping. As for common sense - well there's no excuse. Maybe she was just useless, but if the teacher involved was struggling with time, workload, weak and incompetent management and the sheer hectic pressure of a difficult teaching day, then it's quite possible that her actions weren't deliberate, venal or even stupid, but her common sense was just trumped by the situation. Anyone can make a bad judgment once the pressure passes a certain point. I wonder if any of the managers in the school or the LEA have lost their jobs as result of this horrible incident?

I've been in several situations where the same thing could've easily happened without me doing anything wrong at all. Left alone with a rowdy group of students, it is always a key decision to leave the classroom, even for a moment, to deal with any situation. It's a judgement call that is pretty much like the toss of a coin. Many is the time I've left the room to sort out a violent incident outside my door, only for the pupils inside to take the chance to be violent themselves. I once had a student knock on my door during a lesson, and when I answered it he threw up and then collapsed off his feet. I was in a situation where I was alone in a classroom where my near colleagues were on non-teaching periods and nowhere to be found. The sight of sometone throwing up had sent my class into that peculiar semi-faked hysteria that poorly behaved students will always embrace in order to cause problems (badly behaved classes become highly skilled at behaving badly. The ringleaders wiill utilise any little thing to undermine classroom discipline - a wasp coming in the window, someone breaking wind, a distant car alarm going off, someone throwing up in the corridor - anything). I sent another pupil to the nearby library to ask the librarian to phone for help. Unable to leave her own class without strictly breaking the rules on supervision, she tried and tried, but nobody answered at reception. The school used walkie talkie radios to call between staff, but they'd been hogged by a few senior staff as macho badges and there wasn't one anywhere nearby. Even when I sent the pupil down to reception there was nobody there due to an admin staff meeting, organised without someone being detailed to cover reception.

It turned out that the student had either eaten some dodgy lunch, or drunk a liquid lunch and he turned out to be fine. But the time it took to organise help could have been crucial.

Supply teachers especially are routinely put in the position where they are placed in front of pupils without any knowledge of special needs, medical issues or any other type of local knowledge - including the names of the students and too often what to teach them. Even as an established member of staff I've been given students with extremely sensitive special needs without being told. One six foot two Sixth Former had a history of mental illness, which meant that, although an excellent student most of the time, without medication he was prone to episodes of extreme violence and self harm - something several of the staff only discovered after we'd wrestled him to the floor, cleaned up the broken glass and stemmed the blood (both his and ours). He'd transferred from another school because they couldn't cope with him, but nobody deigned to tell us why.

Another 13 year old boy needed to be given his Ritalin, as without it he was pretty much out of control. His special needs assistant usually monitored his mood and administered the pills. But when she was sent on a training course, responsibility wasn't transferred (ie her boss never did anything about it) and none of the regular staff were aware. One horrible violent incident and broken arm later (I raise it to protect myself from onrushing attack and the pupil headbutted it), I found out that he'd just not taken his medication, and one pill would have likely stopped him from attacking me. Interestingly, because my arm and hand was in plaster, the Head Teacher's secretary acted as stenographer for me when I filled in the accident forms and pupil violence report. She didn't want me to read what she'd written and I had to insist. Upon reading it I found she'd left out all the salient details that pointed to procedural flaws and even tried to mollify the details of the attack itself, as if it was a tiny fleeting incident with a freak outcome.

I could go on. Experience taught me that I should research the files - checking up on statements and records of special emotional, educational and medical needs for each of the pupils I taught. Starting in a new school I went to the files kept by the special needs co-ordinator. She was pretty obstructive but I thought that was just her being precious in the face of a new staff member. Only I couldn't find the files, only ones from about three years earlier. Of course, for her £8,000 a year extra, she'd done pretty much no work and there were no files. Which is understandable if maybe she herself was not coping. But even if that was the case, he fact that nobody in the school's management had noticed her failure in the past three years meant that pupils were walking around the school with nut allergies, weak hearts and God-knows what else without anybody knowing.

I guess my point is that teachers, like the ones who taught poor Sam Linton, are in a rather vulnerable position. And often they are put there without the basic training and support they need to operate in the best interests of their pupils' safety. This is even before we consider such things as teacher safety (my broken arm is testimony to this) and the actual processes of education such as knowing how to tailor teaching style and learning materials to the pupils' individual needs.

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