Making the grade with discipline

I still don't know how it happened. A honey-tongued education officer, a sortie to Moray House Institute before Christmas in some high-powered company, and I was on the roller-coaster to being a small cog in the administrative and practical wheels of what turned out to be the most oversubscribed one-day conference in the history of Days out from the Darg - the Scottish Office's conference on promoting positive discipline. Fronted by Pamela Munn of Moray House and Cameron Munro of the Scottish Initiative on Attendance and Absence, the prospect was unmissable.

The list of delegates summed to 176 out of 700 applications, and proved to be a truly representative cross-section of all that is great, good, voluble and far-flung. I cannot really believe that such a diverse gathering scrambled for places just to hear the Education Minister race his way through the keynote address, scheduled optimistically for half an hour out of the day. Their interest lay in their concerns for the only subject that could be guaranteed to produce such a motley trawl - school behaviour and discipline, our old friend ethos.

Once the smoke of introduction that emphasised two needs, to focus on widespread low-level classroom disruption and to promote improvement, had died away, the rationale behind the day became clear: to share good practice and to encourage schools to disseminate it. Helping both these along, four presentations of good practice were scheduled, followed by workshops entitled "Making it happen in schools". My experience of good practice, and making it happen, is that it can be a slippery customer, a will of the wisp that may work somewhere, but when you try it is likely to slide straight out of your grasp into a tail-spin, to transmute into something near malpractice.

I was pleasantly surprised. The presentations were impressive in their boxing of the technology compass, ranging from high-tech to low-tech to no-tech. They ranged from a complex secondary database designed to allow analysis of referrals from every department, to circle time, a group listening system tailored to enhancing self-esteem and promote moral values, and its wee brother, bubble time, a one-to-one version, both thought provoking. Ronnie the Raccoon, a furry creature to whom children can get things off their chests, I found slightly provoking, while the idea of playground spies looking for children who are getting it right in order to give them awards I thought very interesting. Positive referrals were worth pondering, too.

The bottom line was clear. There is a wide range of good practice, and children need good news about themselves, however we provide it to them. Praise at a whole swatch of levels is an integral part of every child's education, self-esteem levels must be raised, children have to be caught young and positive parental input is needed to make sure that behavioural difficulties do not hinder the smooth progress of effective learning and teaching.

As chair of the final session, Archie McGlynn HMCI ended on a high note, stressing the need to emphasise the "positive", and reiterating the urgency of raising children's self-esteem. His appeal, almost evangelical in tone, urged the delegates to celebrate the good things of Scottish education, for there is much in it that is of high quality. My heart sank then that evening and the next day as I watched and read the media dripfeed to the taxpaying community: dismissive 10-second "backbytes" and the inevitable "he stole oor ba" comments as the whole subject mired down in pre-election tit-for-tat irrelevance.

I saw no mention of the junta of HMI Audit Unit, Moray House and Quality in Education Centre to promote positive discipline, no mention of the Ethos Network, little mention of the minister's grant scheme to develop new approaches to alternatives to exclusion, little mention of the universal need to accentuate the positive, all initiatives with school value. Perfumiers have what they call horizontals - aromas with cutting edge but no depth. Contrary to reports, this conference was vertical.

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