‘There’s spitting, foul language’: the reality of working in a college in badly behaved Britain

I started working as a learning support assistant about 12 years ago. I have worked with every age group, from nursery through to people in their 60s, mostly in schools in working-class areas where the progression to higher education is low. Now, I work primarily with adult learners.

It has always been challenging work, but I never wanted a job that was driven by profit. Often, our learners have really problematic home lives and we end up being a background support system. We are not experts in this, or even trained, but we help them in whatever way we can. Sometimes, that means providing them with money or food. Sometimes, it’s about listening.

In the past couple of years, the insecurity in people’s lives has been getting worse and worse – and it’s affecting their behaviour. You see learners breaking down in tears because they are so overwhelmed, or they are venting their anger and frustration.

Since we came back on-site post-lockdown, behaviour is worse than it has ever been. Every staff member that I have spoken to agrees. There has been spitting, foul language, littering, disregard for shared spaces and teachers’ authority – it’s shocking. Learners even reject the idea that there should be repercussions for their behaviour. We are at breaking point.

For many, college is a place of stability – one of the few constants in their lives. I think, subconsciously, that is why they allow their emotions to come out here, because it’s somewhere they don’t have to worry about their rent or their dad getting violent. There is lots of empathy among staff – the reason that we’re in these roles is because we care and we are willing to put up with more than many people – but we shouldn’t have to put up with this. It’s just not fair.

As educators, we expect certain times of the year to be more frustrating: we know that students become ruder and more stressed during the exam period. But, in the past couple of years, there hasn’t been the usual period of settling down. The frequency of bad behaviour is greater and the behaviour is worse.

The lockdowns were a factor, especially among the younger learners, the 16- to 19-year-olds. At a time when their horizons should have been broadening, they were shut in their homes and their lives got smaller. Then, after lockdown, they were thrown into a college environment without any grownup behaviours and skills. Even hanging out with their friends, going to the shops, they find stressful. They just weren’t prepared for it.

Of course, staff went through the pandemic, too; it wasn’t a great time for anybody. But we can’t understand what it’s like to go into lockdown at 15, then emerge at 17 and be expected to behave like an adult. Some of the students have no social skills; they don’t know how to look an adult in the eye or talk to someone they have never spoken to. Now, they engage with their phones. Anything unfamiliar prompts either deep anxiety or aggression. I have also noticed a tendency for the adolescent boys and men to walk around with their hands down their trousers, then, when challenged, argue vehemently that it’s fine. I have even been shouted at and insulted for calling out this behaviour as antisocial.

But we are not here to teach teenagers how to engage with society; we are trying to teach them English and maths. I see the teachers working constantly, doing part social work, part parental duties, part teaching. It would be overwhelming even if we had enough staff. The learners don’t understand how stressed the teachers are – they shouldn’t have to – but it’s only by the will of people who genuinely care that the education system has stayed together this long.

I am leaving the profession, partly because I want to pursue a long-held dream of working in the arts and partly because I can feel myself losing patience with the learners. It has been getting harder and harder to cope. We have colleagues going off on stress leave, or worse. This academic year, there has been a real push towards wellbeing, with staff offered counselling, but I don’t know when they would get the time to access it.