The tormentors of science teacher Peter Harvey got more reality than they bargained for, says Jenny McCartney
Published: 7:14PM BST 01 May 2010
The British judicial system demonstrated both wisdom and mercy last week to Peter Harvey, the secondary school science teacher who had, in the midst of a mental breakdown, battered a 14-year-old pupil with a dumb-bell while shouting “die, die, die”. It was a nauseating act – the boy suffered a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain – yet the jury took less than two hours to clear Mr Harvey of attempted murder and grievous bodily harm with intent.
Despite Mr Harvey’s eruption of violence, it was evident to both judge and jury that what appeared before them was the wreckage of a good man. He had been described by former pupils and colleagues as an inspiring teacher, who cared deeply for his pupils.
Then he hit a bad patch: he was shoved in class by one pupil, and pushed into a bush following an altercation with another. His wife was suffering from depression and one of his two daughters was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. His confidence faltered. He too developed depression, and took time off. When he eventually returned to the classroom, the pupils were not sympathetic: on the contrary, they scented an exciting weakness and wished to provoke him into an act of self-destruction.
On the day that Mr Harvey finally went mad, a number of his pupils had planned to bait him until he snapped, record this diverting meltdown on a camcorder and circulate the footage. The classroom drama duly kicked off, but by the time it ended, everyone had got more reality than they had bargained for: the boy who had told him to “f— off” was grievously injured and Mr Harvey was howling in shock.
We should not imagine that the pupils of All Saints’ Roman Catholic School in Mansfield, Notts, are uniquely villainous. On the contrary, their instincts appear depressingly normal. Teenagers might be exhilarating company, but they are frequently almost entirely lacking in basic empathy towards their immediate elders. They have sporadic, intense feelings of compassion – for distant freedom-fighters or trembling veal calves being transported for slaughter – but when it comes to dredging up ordinary kindness towards the world-weary man or woman who stands before them in a classroom, there is often a gaping hole in the adolescent psyche. If teachers cannot exert their authority, they become pitiable sources of entertainment.
When William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies, he invented for his characters an exotic location, an island away from adult rules where the cruellest instincts of adolescents could run riot. Today, a replica of that island can be found in numerous classrooms across Britain, with increasing numbers of isolated and bullied teachers cast in the unenviable role of Piggy.
In any given year, one in three teachers takes sick leave for work-related stress. Those absences are not, of course, triggered solely by harassment from their pupils. Teachers, particularly in the state system, are beset by excessive workloads and form-filling. They can be crushed, unsupported, beneath the agenda of interfering governors, as was Erica Connor, a primary headmistress whose highly successful career was destroyed when she was falsely accused of racism and Islamophobia by two newly appointed governors at her school in Woking.
Mrs Connor, as this newspaper reports today, has been vindicated by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. But her life has been shredded. Even teachers who are physically abused by aggressive parents or pupils are keenly aware that any attempt at self-defence could destroy their own career. Their position is an emotionally corrosive one: responsibility without power.
I can remember, as no doubt many readers can, finding in the quirks and mannerisms of my teachers a rich source of hilarity. But we would not have dared, as so many do now, to taunt and defy them openly and routinely. The system then, from the school hierarchy to the local council, was firmly on their side. Not any more. Behind the spectacular disintegration of Mr Harvey, a wealth of teaching talent is silently dissolving into despair.
Published in the Telegraph: