A time for disciplined thinking

24th June 2005 at 01:00
There are certain things that we are prepared to believe are just about possible - but would rather not try ourselves. Undergoing open-heart surgery on a Chinese acupuncturist's operating table is one example. Trying to maintain discipline in a secondary school without the ultimate sanction of permanent exclusion is another.

The Institute for Public Policy Research is, however, optimistic that the latter feat can eventually be achieved, if policy-makers lend their support. It also advocates a three-day limit on fixed-term exclusions.

"What planet do think-tankers ruminate on?" will be the response from many people who actually work in schools. If a 14-year-old boy (the most likely candidate for exclusion) brutally assaults another pupil, how can he be readmitted four days later? But the IPPR's proposals still merit attention because the authors do have some understanding of the problem. For example, they say that the link between the Government's standards agenda and bad behaviour should be examined. There were roughly 3,000 permanent exclusions in 1990-91 but that tally quadrupled during the performance-fixated later 1990s. The IPPR is also right to underline how difficult it is to return excluded pupils to the mainstream.

However, it is questionable whether the Government will heed this advice from its favourite think-tank. Ministers will not launch any new initiative until the behaviour task force chaired by Sir Alan Steer reports in October. By then, the Department for Education and Skills should also have a major research report evaluating the Behaviour Improvement Programme that has been running in 34 local authorities.

But, of course, many of the strategies that improve behaviour have already been identified: early intervention in primary schools, consistent whole-school policies on discipline, and alternative curricula for at-risk teenagers. Learning mentors and support staff who provide a bridge between school and home can also make an important difference. There is, however, no magic bullet, a fact that Sir Alan has already acknowledged. Schools can reduce bad behaviour but they can never eradicate it - even with the help of a think-tank.

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