A moral panic about pupil behaviour fluttered among last year's election manifestos. Now that panic is bearing its legal fruit. New and pending legislation (the Education Act 1997 and the School Standards and Framework Bill) contains various measures relating to behaviour and discipline in schools. Those relating to exclusions and school discipline policies are of great import for governors.
In the past, school governors had a rather vague responsibility for school discipline, with the nature of school rules left firmly in the hands of headteachers. Though governing bodies have always had an overall responsibility for the conduct of the school, from now on they will be required to produce a written statement of general principles designed to promote good behaviour in the school. They will have to review this statement regularly.
This may not seem like much of a departure from previous requirements (in the 1986 Act) but this is the first time that the need for a written statement from the governing body has been made explicit in law.
More importantly, in devising their statement of general principles, governing bodies will now be required to consult with the headteacher and parents. Some schools already do this, no doubt, but, again, the process of consultation with parents specifically has not previously been statutory.
Unfortunately, the nature of this consultation ("in such manner as appears to them to be appropriate", to quote clause 59) is unspecified. One does not have to be unduly cynical to fear that, for some governing bodies, this will be a formal, cosmetic exercise rather than a genuine involvement of parents in the life of the school.
Furthermore, this clause omits any reference to the two most important parties involved in discipline and good behaviour: teachers and pupils! Surely any policy prescribing expectations and standards is most likely to succeed if those to whom it directly applies are involved in its conception and framing?
Once the governing body has devised its general statement it will then be, as before, up to the headteacher to determine the actual content of the behaviourdiscipline policy and the "measures" involved.
In doing so, the head must take into consideration the governors' statement of principles and any guidance they may offer on particular matters. Finally, the headteacher's discipline policy and school rules must take the form of a written statement which is regularly drawn to the attention of parents and pupils.
All this is a new development, which should ensure that the nature of school rules becomes more transparent than was sometimes the case in the past. However, anomalies remain. If parents are to be consulted when the governors are drawing up their statement of general principles, why should they not be similarly consulted when the headteacher draws up the actual day-to-day policy on behaviour?
One can't help thinking that an opportunity to promote greater parental involvement and ownership by the whole school community has been lost.
In addition, the objectives which the headteacher's policy are supposed to achieve are very general and much the same as those in the 1986 Act: to promote self-discipline, respect for others, good behaviour and so on.
Unexceptional - yet many parents are astonished to discover that schools are still not legally obliged to have explicit anti-bullying policies. Some of course do, but they cannot automatically be inferred from the requirements of the legislation. This is where governors' powers to give guidance to the headteacher could be put to good effect.
Another area of concern before the election was the exploding rate of exclusions. Recent figures from the Children's Society showing a 450 per cent increase in permanent exclusions over a few years and 137,000 fixed-term exclusions last year suggest that this issue is still with us. Changes in the law will give a greater significance to the role of governors.
In the Bill, fixed-term exclusions are being extended from 15 days in any one term to 45 days in any one year. Pupils permanently excluded from two or more schools will lose their right of admission to a third school (the "two strikes and you're out" rule).
What governors may not realise is that a local education authority's power to instruct the reinstatement of excluded pupils (in the case of county schools) is being removed and thus the only avenue of appeal for fixed-term exclusions will be to the governors, who meet to consider the head's decision. Though some governing bodies may welcome this greater autonomy in behavioural matters, many governors will worry about the moral burden of justifying an exclusion. Forty-five days is a long time out of school.
Much of the current debate in education appears to be a wider civil one about the relative "moral territoriality" of home and school. Forthcoming legislative requirements on discipline and exclusions, not to mention home-school contracts and after-school detention, unfortunately continue to fudge this issue.
Andrew Dorn is a lecturer in education at Middlesex University.