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Suitable fare can boost motivation

Ofsted had some cheering news for teachers this week: even struggling schools can achieve swift and remarkable improvements in pupils' behaviour.

Few teachers will be surprised to learn that one of the keys to tackling daily disruption is a change in the subject matter of lessons. A more varied menu, tailored more closely to pupils' interests, made a difference, says a report into behaviour in failing and weak schools.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, author of last year's government-commissioned report on secondary education, knew this. His proposals were based on the belief that the only way to increase the motivation of disengaged teenagers was to offer them vocational studies at least from the age of 14 and to place the same value on those studies as on the traditional A-level route. His report did little more than sum up the views held by most teachers for at least a decade. But the Government turned it down. Faced with a general election and the prospect of headlines in the tabloids bewailing the loss of the "gold-standard" A-level, it opted for a pale and unconvincing version of Sir Mike's plans.

Optimists suggested that they would happen anyway, that schools, aware that existing courses were woefully inadequate for some students, would go their own way. So far, however, caution has prevailed. Schools are hemmed in by tests and league tables. They are constrained by fear of Ofsted. Inspectors may cite changes to the curriculum as a way to motivate unruly pupils. In practice, schools fear to stray too far from the conventional path in case they are penalised by Ofsted.

There may always be a few schools where no amount of curriculum innovation or imaginative discipline will restore calm and order. Young people's bad behaviour cannot be banished by teachers alone. Parents who back their unruly offspring against their teachers are a recurring feature of school life. But this week's report shows how inventive teachers can be in producing lessons that motivate teenagers. All they need, the Government should note, is the freedom and encouragement to do it more often.

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