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Better than limbo

Some deaths affect a nation much more than others. Jamie Bulger's was one. Philip Lawrence's was another. After such murders, old certainties disappear forever. But perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that, while the continuing public outcry over Mr Lawrence's killing and the sharp increase in pupil exclusions is necessary, such problems are not unique to our country.

British newspapers recently have reported on ultra-violent infants in the United States, a shocking Dutch survey which revealed that one in four of the pupils interviewed was carrying a potential weapon, and martial arts training for German teachers.

Nor is school violence a new phenomenon. Concern has been expressed about increasing levels of pupil aggression and disruption in England since at least the 1960s, and a vast range of hard and soft "solutions" has been tried. Pupil-referral units were the Seventies' response to the most intractable behaviour problems. Many different counselling and "time-out" strategies have since been used with less serious offenders. And some schools are now resorting to closed-circuit television surveillance and other tactics that would have been considered too Big Brotherish even 10 years ago.

At present it is hard to see why the three-pronged initiative that Robin Squire announced this week - in-school rehabilitation units for pupils at risk of exclusion, behaviour-support teams, and teacher secondments to pupil-referral units - should prove any more successful than earlier programmes. But provided the Government follows up this initiative, as it has said it would, by giving schools further powers to control violent and destructive pupils and protect staff and pupils from intruders, there are some grounds for optimism.

The National Association of Head Teachers' demand for an extension to the maximum length of temporary exclusions - currently 15 days a term - appears justified, but perhaps it is time that the NAHT and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers publicly recognised that a punitive approach to indiscipline can also be counter-productive (even Gillian Shephard has said that exclusion can often amount to a "limbo of non-provision"). This week the press reports of Robin Squire's announcement were full of references to "sin-bins", "hit-squads" and "crack-downs". But the schools involved in this Pounds 18 million programme do not think in these terms. Several of the secondary schools setting up rehabilitation units will be targeting very young pupils and they are determined to minimise the stigma involved. One headteacher has even threatened to hand back the money for his unit if it is labelled a "sin-bin". What heads of this kind appreciate is that although it invites ridicule to say so, the best way to improve many children's behaviour is not to send in "hit squads" but to raise their self-esteem.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how this can be done when the factors that cause children to be disruptive can invariably be traced to their home backgrounds or the increasing emphasis on academic achievement. As Eric Bolton, the former senior chief inspector, said:"In the long run, more success may well be achieved by seeking to influence the major education debates about the curriculum, exams and pupil profiles than through a concentration on yet more types of alternative special provision for difficult pupils." It is now 15 years since he made that comment, but it seems even more relevant today.

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