Lock them up until they learn

Discipline has to be enforced before persistent troublemakers and truants understand the need to respect school rules, says George McMillan.

HE Education Minister has announced that another pound;10 million has been given to councils to recruit extra staff to supervise school troublemakers and help truants and youngsters who have been kicked out of school. This money follows the recommendations of the Scottish Executive's discipline task group and is in addition to the pound;13 million already allocated to set up "sin bins" in schools and to fund a review of council policies on discipline.

And where will all this money and effort get us? Precisely nowhere, as has happened on countless occasions in the past. The negative is, of course, that we shall be pound;23 million down and precious little to show for it.

If we really want to restore discipline and relay the foundations of a solid Scottish education, we must start with society at large. Our courts, children's panels and our legal system should be reorganised and provided with effective legislation to make parents responsible for attendance and behaviour.

Not only should the courts be able to summon parents before them, but they should have the power to punish them as severely as is necessary. If parents cannot or will not help control their children, even under threat of punishment, then the authorities should take over and, in the worst cases, truants and badly behaved children should be put in secure accommodation where they can be kept and given an education until such time as they can be trusted to attend mainstream school and behave acceptably.

Above all, children should not be allowed to roam the streets when they should be at school.

Once a system has been established by which truants and disruptive pupils are quickly dealt with and returned to school or placed in secure establishments, schools will have a chance to restore order in the classroom. By all means keep the "sin bins", but heads should have the power to exclude, suspend or expel pupils whose behaviour is particularly disruptive or who are persistent absentees.

Once the system has teeth, pupils soon get the message that they cannot get away with it. At the moment, badly behaved pupils regard exclusion as a reward, not a punishment. School punishments and children's panels are a joke to the worst element.

As long as the authorities are seen as powerless to punish badly behaved pupils, their numbers will continue to grow, with the more timorous imitating the bold and the bad. As soon as the majority see the worst offenders getting their comeuppance and being locked up, general standards of behaviour and attendance will rise steeply, with educational progress following suit.

As a teacher, principal teacher and assistant headteacher in schools throughout the north-east of Scotland, I saw time and again how firm insistence on regular attendance and acceptable behaviour eventually brought all but a tiny minority to heel.

And we were successful even when corporal punishment had gone and children's panels were rapidly gaining a reputation for the softly, softly approach.

Ay, Cath Jamieson, you're a' backside foremost! Get the deterrents prepared outside the schools, be ready with your laws, your courts, your secure places and your truant officers, then tackle classroom discipline from the top down, giving heads the power, if need be, to expel pupils into the community where the law with its new-found effectiveness and bite would be able to pick them up and, we hope, return them to school eventually as reformed characters.

Perhaps then we might have a return to sanity and common sense in our schools and the beginning of a new age of enlightenment for Scottish education.

George K McMillan was assistant rector at Perth Academy.

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