A few months ago I was having a conversation with an education minister. At one point he asked me what the government could do to assist schools with behaviour. I said, 'Nothing.' Not because nothing needed to be done to improve behaviour - God, there's an Aegean Stable to be mopped out in that regard - but because schools already have pretty much all the legal powers they need to generate good behaviour. For most schools, it isn't new powers they need, but more vertebrae. A little less conversation, a little more action, as the Bard of Graceland once said. The laws governing what we can and can't do are mostly in the right shape. It's the quality of governance and management that's the problem.
Which is why I greet the news about new powers for schools to combat bullying, with caution. But first of all, it's important to understand exactly what has been done, rather than what the headlines will scream at us. The danger is that many will believe that:
- Schools will be given sweeping new powers to prosecute children
- New ASBOs will be dispensed by headteachers
- Bullying will become illegal, as suggested by campaigners for the so-called Ayden's Law
The only problem is that none of 1-3 are true. ASBOs are to be replaced with Criminal Behaviour Orders (the hashtag friendly #Crimbos) and Crime Prevention Injunctions. It's the latter that concern us in the edusphere. The plan is that, rather than following the ASBO procedure, where the police had to submit a proposal for an injunction to a magistrate, who would then consider granting the injunction or not, CPIs could be submitted for consideration by bodies other than the police: for example, several households, or one household, repeatedly.
It was always planned that NHS bodies would also be able to submit an application for injunction; now, schools have, it seems, been added to the list. They can submit, and a County Court (not a magistrate now) can consider, accept or dismiss. The injunction itself doesn't criminalise the activity; what it does is specify remedial action that the recipient has to undertake in order to avoid breaking the injunction. That could mean avoiding a certain area, or refraining from emailing someone, or tweeting about them (or edublogging). Breaking the injunction itself would be a breach of civil law. One of the many possible outcomes of breaking an injunction - and it would have to be a serious, probably repeated breach - could be custody, of up to three months. But other options are available.
So, to clarify: this is a small modification to the list of those authorised to submit an application of injunction. It doesn't criminalise bullying, unless there are some special secret laws being passed I don't know about. It doesn't even guarantee custody for someone breaching their CPI. I just wanted to make this absolutely clear before I carried on, because this story has all the markings of a classic social media outrage. I can smell the burning torches already. Somewhere, someone is building a Wicker Man.
Second point: is it useful?
I'll give it a cautious maybe; a golf clap, perhaps. Because I don't think this will be used that much. I think most heads would absolutely prefer not to involve magistrates and police in their stewardship of their students, for two reasons: most heads would bust a nut trying to find a solution that didn't involve calling in Inspector Knacker. Despite evidence to the contrary, most heads don't want their kids ending up before the Beak. The second reason is that a minority of heads are rather good at pretending that really bad behaviour will go away if they turn the radio up a bit louder. I see this on the TES behaviour forum all the time.
So when would a head need to use this? First of all, for the deterrent effect of the threat of escalation. If a child is told to stop, for example, intimidating another kid, and despite repeated warnings they continue to act in a menacing way, in extreme situations, it would be useful to start a process that could lead to police involvement. Those that fret about criminalising vulnerable children would do well to actually visit a school from time to time, or at least have the heart to put themselves in the shoes of a miserable, harrowed victim of physical and emotional intimidation and harassment.
Believe me, while I understand that bullying is a textured, variegated mess of an issue, with bully and victim often coexisting in a cat's cradle of cause and effect, sometimes it just isn't. Sometimes it's just mono-directional cruelty; victimisation; persecution; Hell in a school hall. I have met far too many children below the age of 17 who were perfectly aware of what they were doing, who could smile and murder while they smile. We do the victims no favours when we pretend that children are helpless engines of social predeterminism until a magical point of adult responsibility is met.
So I can see this being used only in very rare circumstances, perhaps when all other options have been exhausted. I would bet my elbows that headteachers would treat this as a nuclear warhead rather than a warning shot; a doomsday device rather than a first option. As it stands, it is merely a request for consideration. In a sense, it's just enhancing community engagement with maintaining public order; instead of relying on the police to deal with all antisocial behaviour, schools, as well as neighbourhoods and hospitals, can trigger the involvement of law.
And as to the claim that children should somehow be immune to the laws of the community, I am genuinely perplexed. Students are routinely let off for committing acts within school that, had they been repeated outside the front entrance, would result in some quality collar-feeling. Barrabas gets pardoned every day in some schools. All that this teaches them is that actions have no consequences. Sometimes they need more than just a disappointed telling off. Sometimes, what would serve their habits well would be a reminder that their victims have rights, as do they. Better they learn this in small doses, at school, to inoculate them against the mistaken privileges of sociopathy later on.
Is it the power schools have been begging for? No. Is it useful? A little, in some circumstances. Is it a scandal? Most definitely not.