Brendan O'Neill reports from a Birmingham infants school which has expelled a little boy for allegedly traumatising teachers
Who's afraid o a five-year old?
In February five-year old Karl Fitzharris was expelled from Audley Infant School in Stechford, Birmingham, after what was described as a 'reign of terror'. Little Karl stands accused of spitting, swearing, pulling a chair from under a teacher and hitting a dinner lady in the playground. The final straw came when he allegedly attacked deputy head Carole Thomas, who is so traumatised that she is still off work and, according to some, may never recover. Teachers at the school have threatened to strike if Karl Fitzharris is ever allowed to return.
What exactly did little Karl do to overpower and traumatise his deputy head and strike fear into the hearts of his teachers? Nobody seems sure. 'I think he tripped her up', said one mother outside the school gates. 'No, he punched and swore at her', said another. According to the local education authority, Karl 'physically assaulted Thomas in a serious manner'. Chris Keates, local secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) thinks this is all semantics. 'It is not necessary to go into detail', she told me, 'suffice to say that it was a serious physical attack and it involved kicking and punching.'
For Keates this may be a cut-and-dried case of assault punishable by expulsion, but others are not so sure; after all, this is a five-year old boy we are talking about. I came across a group of women at a Stechford bus-stop, engrossed in a conversation about 'that Karl boy'. 'It's a bit odd that a teacher can't cope with a little boy', said one elderly lady, 'especially a deputy head. A few years back the kid would have been given a clip around the lughole and that would be the end of it'. 'It sounds like he was having a tantrum', said another woman. 'You'd kind of hope that a senior teacher could handle a tantrum.'
Other mothers outside the school gates agreed. 'My kids have had run-ins with Karl and some of the other kids in that family', said one mother-of-two, 'and they are little buggers for sure. But my boys either ignored them or stood up to them. I don't know why Carole Thomas couldn't have done the same'. According to another mother, 'it is a disgrace that a teacher has to take so much time off school because of one incident with a child. We've all had moments when our children lash out or throw things but we have to calm them down and get on with it. Teachers should be able to do that as well as parents'.
Most people wanted to know how a five-year old boy could overpower and apparently almost ruin the life of a mature woman whose job it is to discipline and educate young children. Chris Keates of the NASUWT has no time for those who dare to ask such questions. 'As a result of the assault a child protection investigation was launched by the school which involved social services and the police. I would like to meet the parent who could handle that and still come out of it with a smile on their face', she says, contemptuously.
Keates singles out Karl's mother Helen Lawrie for criticism. 'There are a lot of issues at the school which need to be sorted out, not least of which is the behaviour of Karl's mother who on an almost daily basis is going to school, using the excuse of taking her other two children to class, to make her presence felt on the premises. She is disrupting the school because she is being quite aggressive in her manner and quite threatening towards members of staff.' Using her other two children as an excuse? Perhaps Lawrie should be made to keep all her children at home in case they too are capable of assault and battery.
I could not speak to Helen Lawrie who is under contract with the Daily Mail - presumably they want to be the only ones who can look down on her as 'jobless, single, with five children aged four to 10 by two fathers' (20 February). But whatever Lawrie's problems she seems to have devised ways of dealing with Karl, where the authorities and the professionals have failed. 'We are talking about qualified teachers whose job it is to look after kids', Helen Lawrie told the Mail: 'To say they can't handle him is crazy. I weigh nine-and-a-half stone and I can restrain him. So why can't they? We are talking about a five-year old, not some sort of teenage hooligan.'
Try telling that to Chris Keates. 'Age is never an issue when you are being assaulted', the union rep told me. 'It doesn't matter if the child is five or 15; unless you have been in that position I don't think you can appreciate just how much an attack by a child can undermine your confidence and cause you trauma.'
It seems that when it comes to the NASUWT stoking up fears about a nation of schoolchildren gone wild, threatening, assaulting and ruining teachers' lives, age really is never an issue. Scares about schoolchildren have been a depressing feature of the education debate in recent years. There was the case of 13-year old Nottingham schoolboy Richard Wilding in April 1996 whom 20 teachers refused to teach, and later that year the Riding Schools debacle with teachers running scared from kids aged 11 to 16. Each time the NASUWT complained that kids were bringing 'the law of the jungle' into Britain's schools and led calls for strike action against unruly pupils.
The Stechford episode is a particularly pathetic spectacle that takes this campaign against unruly pupils to farcical lengths. Twelve teachers and a deputy head, a local education authority and a 230 000-strong union all seem to be running scared from a five-year old boy. When Chris Keates says that age is never an issue who can tell how far this fear of children will go? Will three-year olds be expelled from playschool for throwing toys?
School is one place where we expect adults to behave as such and set an example to children. The teachers in Stechford and their supporters would appear to have shirked those responsibilities. There can be little hope for the future in a society which is scared of its own kids even when they still wear short trousers.
Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998