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Discipline is deadly serious

Another teenager stabbed to death. In a crowded Tube station this time. Rival gangs, many of them in school uniform. It's what all parents dread and we do everything possible to shield our children. We run them to school, call their friends if they are home later than they had promised and ensure they carry their mobile phones so that we can locate them. We remember the freedom of our youth and wonder how we could possibly have come to this.

In reality, we know. Feckless fathers siring youngsters and casually moving on; bored teenagers seeking more extreme highs; parents and teachers unable to control poor behaviour; the disappearance of the extended family; children constantly aware of their "rights"; a materialistic and manipulative society; and easy access to questionable media material. I could spend the rest of this column giving reasons ... but you know them already.

Usually, after an outburst of teenage public disorder, schools are targeted. We must do more to counter racism, bullying or bad behaviour. But we won't have approached the heart of the matter - that we are frightened to discipline. If we do, we may have social workers calling.

I have got policy documents coming out of my ears. Schools have to write one for everything. If your anti-bullying policy is the size of a telephone directory, then fine, you are doing something. If it isn't, it proves you haven't a clue. We are told that bullying and poor discipline are endemic and we read about uncontrollable six-year-olds shouting obscenities and kicking teachers. Schools are required to deal with an unruly child by consulting a policy because "following procedure" avoids trouble from parents and the local authority.

This takes time, during which the child becomes more unruly. Eventually, when nothing has changed, everybody sighs with relief because the child is excluded, goes to secondary school or the family relocates. It is not problem solving.

Ours is a happy, settled school in a tough area. It has taken years to achieve, we still work hard at it, and we certainly have our hairy moments. But the children are constantly reminded of one simple rule: in a civilised, safe school there is room for lots of individuality, but not at the expense of others. If teachers experience difficulty with children, I'm available, and I will chastise a child, however young, in no uncertain terms. I know I'm not seen as an ogre, but the buck stops with me.

We don't spend hours listening to Damien explaining why he felt it necessary to thump Charlie, we don't give good behaviour certificates, we don't offer anger management or make contracts with children. They are expected to behave - and like all children, they respond to a secure, enjoyable environment with clear boundaries.

We have written a behaviour policy, because we had to, but nobody ever reads it. You can feel our policy when you walk into the school. Children and teachers smile at you warmly. If students on teaching practice ask for my discipline policy, I tell them to come back in a week. By then they will know what our policy is without needing to read a thing.

Primary school years are so important. We need children to become responsible social creatures right from the start. And we have to insist that parents back us up, taking full responsibility for their children, too. Yes, more parents need to work these days, but the proliferation of breakfast and after-hours clubs allow parents to abdicate some of that responsibility easily. Why have children if you don't want to enjoy time with them?

Between us, if we can't succeed before the child goes to secondary school, it will already be too late.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary School in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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