Detention powers for heads

Nicholas Pyke

Heads will be given the power to defy uncooperative parents and detain disruptive pupils after school under a range of measures to improve discipline announced this week by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Gillian Shephard.

Twenty experimental task forces will be created to advise schools on difficult pupils, and there will be new school-based units for children in danger of exclusion. Schools with the best disciplinary records will get prizes, said Mrs Shephard.

The time limits for exclusions will be subject to "an urgent review", as will an appeal procedure which some schools believe prevents them from expelling problem pupils. The system of home tuition for excluded children, described as "a mockery" by Mrs Shephard, is set for an overhaul.

The announcement is a response by the Department for Education and Employment to Prime Minister John Major's recent promise of a new attack on poor discipline. It is only a year since the last set of Government circulars on troubled children was produced.

Mrs Shephard's announcement also answers many criticisms made recently by the National Association of Head Teachers. The union asked for stronger powers for schools and more flexible time limits when pupils are suspended. It criticised the use of home tuition, and "the minority of parents who are guilty of abdicating their responsibilities". However, Mrs Shephard refused to respond to the NAHT's call for a return of "indefinite exclusion", abolished last year. She described it as "a limbo of non-provision" for many pupils.

"The work of schools must not be made impossible nor must the interests of one or two disruptive children come before the interests of a school full of children," said Mrs Shephard. She promised that money would be found for improved discipline, but would not say from where. Also, the law on detaining pupils after school will be re-examined. At present it is thought schools have no power if parents refuse their permission.

But this, said Mrs Shephard, could be a misunderstanding. "We do want to look again at that legal advice. It's perhaps less clear in legal terms than the impression we may have given," she said. New laws would be drafted if necessary.

She reserved her harshest words for the system of teaching pupils at home. "As it is currently working it is a waste of time and a mockery and does no good for the child concerned. And is very costly. It can't be the right way forward." Children, she said, can be left with as little as five hours tuition as week.

The department says it will:

* take advice from the Consultative Group on School Standards, set up last May;

* fund new support teams to help schools tackle behaviour problems;

* promote school-based units for pupils at risk of exclusion;

* take advice from the Teacher Training Agency;

* give mainstream teachers practical experience of difficult pupils;

* introduce national awards for schools with good discipline;

* motivate disaffected pupils with school-business links;

* ask Her Majesty's Chief Inspector to examine exclusions;

* issue new guidance on home tuition for excluded pupils.

Both the NAHT and the National Union of Teachers said the measures are constructive, but do not go far enough to deal with uncooperative parents. The NUT added that they will be impossible to implement without extra money.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers condemned the announcement as "pious procrastination".

"This is remarkably soft stuff from a Goverment that is supposed to be committed to law and order," said general secretary Nigel de Gruchy.

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