This picture appeared on the front page of Sheffield's evening paper on Wednesday. It's the face of twelve year old Shanni Naylor, a pupil at Myrtle Springs School. Myrtle Springs... it sounds lovely doesn't it, conjuring up images of mountain streams and myrtle growing wild on the fellside. In England, there are many challenging schools that have optimistically taken their names from nature - as if through that naming process, the laws and the beauty of nature will colour those ugly concrete schools with goodness.
Allegedly, Shanni had stood up against a bully the day before to protect a victimised classmate. In revenge, the bully, also a member of the fairer sex, used a pencil sharpener blade to slash Shanni during an English lesson. She needed thirty stitches in her face and will require some plastic surgery but clearly this beautiful child is now scarred for life.
What's going on? So-called "low level classroom disruption" is something I have to battle against every day. I could write a book about the many forms it takes - the surly look from a child who arrives ten minutes late for a lesson without explanation, the sexual graffiti on the exercise book, the blank look when you tick off a child for swearing at a classmate, children without pens to write with, the daily requests to stop chewing gum and to take off coats, the off-task social conversations, the unrequested challenging remarks, the inappropriate body language that speaks volumes. What happened to poor Shanni is simply a horrible extension of that anti-educational culture that infests England's underprivileged urban high schools. It would be easy to vilify the assailant but she too is a victim of something that is quite rotten in our midst.
Teasing out the threads to explain this cancer would be like sorting out the swept hairs on a barbershop floor at the end of a busy workday. However, I would point to a misguided do-gooder approach to schoolchildren's "needs" and "rights", involving mentoring and counselling - "There! There Johnny, we know you didn't mean to burn the school down!" and half-baked theories such as "Assertive Discipline" and parents and business leaders having too much of a say - warped democracy. And I would also point to the media - TV and newspapers that have subtly poked fun at teachers, rule systems and consequences through throwaway drama, sensational editorials and news reports. Then there's the never ending stream of new government sponsored initiatives, unsettling teachers on the shop floor, denying them trust, refusing to listen to them, checking and rechecking them, setting unreasonable targets, sending in highly paid inspectors to kick ass, churning out interminable A4 binders after endless glossy guidelines.
I hope that Shanni Naylor's scars add fuel to what should be a national debate about what is really going on in the most challenging schools in this green and pleasant land. In terms of culture, authority and civilisation, Britain has given so much to the world and yet at times it appears that we are now breeding a generation that knows how to take but not to give, selfish, uncouth, disinterested - Frankenstein's new monster. It's time to draw a line in the sand.