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Minister takes the whip hand

THE Education Minister is to take personal charge of the latest campaign to improve discipline in schools, as foreshadowed in last week's TES Scotland.

Jack McConnell is to chair a new task force to be announced next month which will cast its eye over existing initiatives and come up with plans by July, to be implemented from the new school session next August. The group will consist of Scottish Executive officials as well as the profession at large.

Mr McConnell said: "This task force will be a top priority for me. I want to ensure that we support the majority of hard-working children, parents and teachers while reducing to a minimum the minority who are alienated and disruptive."

The Scottish Executive acknowledges: "There is a serious problem of an increasing minority of pupils, and parents indeed, who don't accept the authority of teachers - a small but hard core."

Mr McConnell's move, coincidentally, comes hard on the heels of claims from the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, reported in last week's TES Scotland, that discipline in schools could be on the point of collapse if additional support to help teachers deal with the problems is not forthcoming.

The initiatives which will come under the task force's microscope include the programmes dealing with developing alternatives to exclusion, study support, working with parents, education action plans and new community schools. This wide canvas reflects ministers' view that "discipline is not just about controlling behaviour but also about instilling a desire to learn".

Ministers remain committed to Labour's UK-wide target of reducing by a third the number of school days lost through exclusions or truancy, despite criticism that it is dogmatic and inflexible. They cncede, however, that this does not necessarily mean retaining pupils in mainstream classes so long as they are receiving some form of education, perhaps in special "sin bin" units.

A Scottish Executive spokesperson said that the intention is to ask: "Are existing measures working, are they doing what we want them to do and are they really helping schools?" The move stems from the new national priorities for education, which were approved by the Parliament last Thursday.

Among the undertakings given by ministers are that they and others should "support and develop . . . the self-discipline of pupils", "help every pupil benefit from education" and "work with parents to teach pupils respect for self and one another".

The Executive recognises the interconnectedness of its priorities and says that, if these goals are to be achieved, steps must also be taken to support teachers and improve the environment of schools. While this obviously includes refurbishing buildings and technology, the Executive says it must also involve "strengthening classroom management and tackling disruption".

The latest assault on behaviour problems in schools is in a long line of initiatives which have their modern origins in 1977 when the Pack committee of inquiry on indiscipline and truancy reported.

Pack's key proposals have never been off the agenda since. Among its remarkably prescient recommendations were "day units" for persistently disruptive pupils, a curriculum more tailored to the needs of disaffected youngsters, courses geared to the world of work in S3 and S4, fewer subjects for the youngest secondary pupils, outside support for schools, more emphasis in teacher training on classroom management and weeding out unsatisfactory teachers.

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