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Sin bins won't work, quality teaching will

Helping pupils contribute to changing the culture of the classroom is vital if schools want to raise levels of behaviour, says Tom Greene

f discipline in schools used to be much better, if disruption was less, if society generally was much more inclined to be law abiding, why the apparent change? My own feeling is that the children who may be causing disruption in schools and the people who may be behaving in an anti-social manner are the children and the grandchildren of my generation, and so I do not think we should be asking only what we can do as teachers in schools to tackle these problems.

Rather we should be considering how as parents and adults we have allowed this situation to develop in the first place and seek solutions to the difficulties from a wider perspective which accepts that disruption of whatever kind is a problem in society and should be tackled as such.

It appears that we are to (re)introduce the notion of special discipline rooms (sin bins ) in schools. I am touched by an almost overwhelming feeling of deja vu. Beginning my teaching career in 1982 and organising my classroom just as I wanted it, I included a "sin bin" at the back, as a bit of a joke, but also with the thought that I would use it as a sanction if necessary.

I was told by my head of department that this method of punishment was unacceptable. His view was understandable for the time - an era of increasing parental involvement immediately following abolition of the belt. Educational philosophy still held to the child-centred approach popularised in the sixties.

Now it appears that what goes around comes around and this measure is being touted as one way of reducing (or should that be containing?) disruptive behaviour. As a principal teacher I am aware of the time all teachers have to spend in dealing with such disruption. I am not sure, though, that teaching pupils in special discipline rooms is the way forward.

What kind of extra support will pupils sent to these rooms get? Are we talking about just containment? How will the special rooms be resourced? What will be the criteria for admission? Such concerns I am sure will be echoed by others.

We also have to remember that there are schools all over the country already employing such a sanction, or something similar, and it will not solve all the problems. The task force on discipline being set up by Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, should perhaps look first to the experience f those schools to gauge the level of success. The task force is to be made up of teachers, parents and other experts. Might I suggest its members look at the recent work of Pamela Munn on discipline and ethos in secondary schools, and that of Graham White and Eleanor Gavienas on the same subject for primaries.

We should not forget the strenuous efforts over the past few years to improve the quality of learning and teaching. Strategies for raising achievement and steps to develop and improve ethos have contributed enormously to the well-being of schools, and the starting point has been the notion of inclusivity where learning is for all. There should be no dilution of these principles in anything the task force recommends.

Crucial in the drive to improve standards is the importance placed on pupils setting targets for their own learning and taking more responsibility. It has also been argued that teachers should have higher expectations and make higher demands of pupils. Within this philosophy there may be a way of improving standards of behaviour. Most teachers accept that it is a minority, though a significant minority, who cause trouble.

Yet the large majority of pupils give no cause for concern. Generally those pupils - 20 to 25 in a class - sit passively when there is disruption, perhaps joining in by listening or laughing. We have to enlist their help for it is their education that is being compromised. There would, of course, be problems, not the least a risk of bullying and children's fear of being accused of "grassing".

We would have to begin in primary, promote a culture that is not about telling tales but about improving learning and opportunity. In secondary this could be carried on through personal and social education and religious education. We expect more maturity from children, and they themselves argue that we should give them more responsibility; so why should we not ask them to speak up when they feel their education is being damaged?

The task force's first role should be to question the extent to which society at large has contributed to the difficulties in schools. Thereafter, it should focus on the contribution pupils can make to improving standards of behaviour in their classes.

ScotlandPlus, pages 2-3

Tom Greene is principal teacher of religious education at St Ambrose High, Coatbridge. He has just started a secondment as lecturer in RE at Glasgow University's faculty of education.

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