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The slow death of respect

A critique of the American descent into a disciplinary vacuum holds timely lessons for the UK, writes John Dunford

Judging School Discipline: the crisis of moral authority

By Richard Arum

Harvard University Press pound;25.95

Pupil misbehaviour consistently features in the top three reasons why qualified teachers leave the profession in the UK. Most teachers would say behaviour has worsened in recent years. But, according to Richard Arum's book, the situation could deteriorate further unless the moral authority of the school is continually reasserted and, in particular, unless the judiciary recognises its important role in creating a climate in which schools can maintain a sound disciplinary basis.

Arum, a professor of sociology in New York, traces the pattern of judgments in American courts from 1960 to 1992 and contends that the dramatic increase in educational litigation during the late 1960s and early 1970s brought the expansion of the individual rights of the student into conflict with the schools' attempts to control student misbehaviour, from which he believes American schools have never wholly recovered. During this period, students developed a sense of legal entitlement, which made them sceptical of the school's authority and this influenced permanently the way in which schools organised their disciplinary processes.

Arum begins his preface by recounting that, when he was an English teacher in Oakland, California, in 1991, one of his students was shot three times during the lunch break in the courtyard next to his classroom. He is as horrified by the almost routine reaction to such incidents as by the violence of the incidents themselves. He recognises that the US does not know how to deal with violence in schools. The situation is certainly serious - 13 per cent of US school students reported in 1997 that they knew of someone who had brought a gun to school, for example. Violence in English schools has not yet reached this state, but the recent fatal stabbing in a rural Lincolnshire secondary school provided a stark reminder that the UK is tending to follow the US in many areas of life.

Recent experience suggests a single decision at national level can affect the disciplinary climate of every school in the UK. In 1999, David Blunkett issued a circular setting out regulations for school exclusions, which, combined with the 33 per cent target to reduce permanent exclusions, sent a strong message to schools that the ultimate sanction of exclusion was to be used only in certain limited circumstances and, even then, the dice were loaded more heavily in favour of the excluded student than hitherto. Not only did this make it more difficult for headteachers to exclude, but it also signalled to students that serious misconduct would be less likely to lead to exclusion. This led directly to a deterioration in behaviour in English schools, with serious incidents being much harder to handle effectively.

This, in turn, created a climate in which classroom disruption increased as young people recognised that the options open to headteachers to deal with repeated misbehaviour had been greatly reduced. Only with the much stronger signals from government ministers has the balance been redressed, and headteachers now feel more strongly supported by the authorities in dealing with indiscipline.

The picture for heads brightened further in 2003, when the Appeal Court gave two important judgments in favour of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, upholding the right of teachers to refuse to teach a seriously disruptive child, and giving similar support to the headteacher in making alternative arrangements for the education of a child returning from exclusion as part of a gradual process of returning the student to normal education. The first judgment was unanimous, but the second was on a majority of three to two, with the liberal judge Lord Hoffman in the minority.

Arum's book should be compulsory reading for the legal profession; they need to recognise the long-term effects of their judgments on the climate of schools and the way in which judgments in favour of individual rights can reduce the moral authority of schools in disciplining errant students.

But the author is no copybook conservative, and he is as critical of the Right's get-tough, zero-tolerance authoritarianism as he is of what he eloquently describes as the "marshmallow effect" of liberal reformers, pushing the rules to their limits and tolerating increased misconduct.

Arum's two central propositions are that the moral authority of the American school has been undermined by the institutional environment in which schools operate, and that moral authority is central to a school's ability to promote academic achievement and socialise young people effectively. He cites cases in the 1970s in which judges ruled wisely against schools dealing hamfistedly with indiscipline among black boys and shows how this changed the climate, encouraging students to question the authority of the school and making schools cautious in implementing their codes of conduct.

Other courts recognised that "constant judicial intervention does more harm than good", provided the school discipline regime is just. It is the students' perception of fairness that gives school rules and disciplinary procedures their efficacy. Those who advocate metal detectors, armed guards and tougher rules do not, in Arum's view, address the wider issues of moral authority or student perceptions, both of which are central to a good disciplinary climate. His research indicates a correlation not only between perceptions of fairness and good behaviour, but also with levels of achievement. As well as clear rules and sanctions, schools in which students behave well also have a curriculum that is differentiated and engages students' interest, Arum found. Bored students behave badly.

The lessons of this book are easy to transfer to the British context, although more discussion of the competitive climate caused by policies such as league tables is needed on this side of the Atlantic. The institutional climate for schools in England cannot omit the effects of an increasingly diverse system, where the burden of sustaining good discipline is heavier for some schools than others. The responsibility of the Government and judiciary comes across clearly in this book, the lessons of which need to be learned quickly if the UK is not to follow the US down a very slippery slope.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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