Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Your best behaviour?

The prime minister's 'respect agenda', launched in January, was unfair to young people and failed to recognise the wider problem in society - it should have started by dealing with adults' poor behaviour.

Following a busy first term as president, travelling the length and breadth of the country, and a busy Christmas catering for nearest and dearest, I thought a little light, daytime television might be just the thing to promote relaxation.

Far from it! Most of the channels seemed to feature harassed employees desperately trying to get through the working day while coping with being verbally abused, threatened or worse.

The only silver lining was the realisation that the poor adult behaviour we sometimes see in our schools and colleges is the tip of an iceberg which stretches throughout society.

Even allowing for the fact that those filmed were aware of the cameras, my impression was certainly that young people could give lessons in good behaviour to many adults.

Those working in service industries nowadays appear to take it for granted that the public will behave badly towards them.

Most depressing of all was the tube driver who said that it wasn't just the sight of the teenager jumping on to the live line in front of his train which had upset him, but the anger directed at him by members of the public when he stopped the train and told them that it would be out of service while he made his report on the incident.

For the adults travelling that day, getting to their destination on time was more important than the death of a young person.

Visiting the library in my local village, usually a haven of peace and quiet, was no better. Even there I encountered a man being unnecessarily abusive to the extremely helpful librarian who was managing to remain (at least outwardly) calm.

The grass verges of our motorways and trunk roads are strewn with litter. Is this all deposited by young people? Driving around the country, I frequently observe adults throwing rubbish from their car windows.

So when Tony Blair talks about his 'respect' agenda, shouldn't he be starting with adults? This is not a new agenda for schools; we have always encouraged young people to develop respect for others, in most cases with considerable success.

As school leaders, we know that modelling good behaviour is one of the most effective ways to teach it. Where, beyond the school gates, can young people find these models?

They will find some at home, but few will witness them in everyday life. They are even less likely to see respectful and considerate behaviour on television screens, in magazines and newspapers.

On the contrary, they will become aware that those who are often most rewarded in our society, both financially and with praise and adulation, seem to be the least likely to model the respect agenda, unless it involves raising their own media profile by encouraging others to raise funds for charity.

Politicians themselves have not been particularly notable recently for showing respect and consideration for each other.

In schools and colleges throughout the country, young people are encouraged to consider the outcomes of their actions, to empathise with others, to work with others on community projects both at home and abroad.

Of course, there are some who are found wanting, some who ignore the message despite our best efforts, but at least they have the excuse of being young, of still needing to learn.

The action plan for the prime minister's respect agenda includes six areas: activities for children and young people, improving behaviour and attendance in schools, supporting families, a new approach to the most challenging families, strengthening communities, and effective enforcement and community justice.

All are important and necessary but when you look at the detail, every action revolves around changing the behaviour of young people and their immediate families. Reading this agenda you would imagine that all that was needed was to deal with a few problem families and their offspring and all would be well.

We need a wider agenda to make a real difference. Until we have a society where consideration and respect for others are valued by adults, where the immediate gratification of the individual is not always paramount and where the contribution of all members is valued, it is unlikely that a few family support schemes and community measures will make a difference.

It would be good to see politicians and those involved in the media make a start with modelling this agenda and praising those who demonstrate it. But then, that probably wouldn't sell many papers or reality TV shows!

By Sue Kirkham, ASCL President

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