Be gentle, say charities, as disciplinarians rule the day

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Ministers, however, are digging their heels in and refusing to budge

Earlier this month, education secretary Michael Gove re- announced a number of behaviour policies that had largely gone unnoticed by anyone but those involved with the nuts and bolts of education. This time round - perhaps because it was late August - the media pounced on it. The Daily Mail's front page screamed: "At last! Teacher is back in charge!"

At around the same time, and largely ignored, an alliance of influential children's charities were quietly taking the opposite attitude. The organisations' names will be familiar - Barnardo's, Action for Children, the Children's Society, and more - but their message will not please those who like ministers' attempts to promote a more muscular approach to classroom discipline.

The rules giving teachers stronger powers to search pupils and use force, contained in the Education Bill now going through Parliament, should be scrapped before becoming law, the charities argue. The proposals would give classroom staff the power to search children for any item they suspect has been, or could be, used to commit an offence, cause injury or damage property.

Barnardo's, in particular, is unhappy. Its report, Tough Love, Not Get Tough, warns that these reforms will lead to schools adopting an "authoritarian approach". Teachers would use "punitive discipline" rather than supporting pupils to try to solve their problems, it claims, warning that the changes are too "simplistic" and could cause welfare issues. A male teacher, for example, would be allowed to search a female pupil without a female member of staff being present."We are concerned that the policy which is emerging is actually counterproductive, being narrowly focused on dealing with extreme symptoms of poor behaviour, rather than addressing the underlying causes in a preventative way," the report says. "Barnardo's is concerned that ... forthcoming legislation will lead schools into adopting an authoritarian approach to discipline which, the evidence shows, may not have the effect that parents, schools and pupils are looking for."

The Barnardo's report is just one part of a wider campaign being orchestrated by a coalition of Action for Children, Ambitious About Autism, British Youth Council, Children's Rights Alliance for England, Children's Society, Mencap and Runnymede. During the summer, the group submitted a joint statement to the House of Lords demanding the Government "provide evidence to show that these measures are necessary and proportionate in order to be lawful".

"We are extremely concerned at the proposals to extend powers to search children without consent in schools. These searches constitute a significant intrusion into children's privacy, protected under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the Human Rights Act," it said.

The Department for Education, still basking in the media's positive coverage, issued a robust defence. "We make no apology for strengthening teachers' powers so every child can go to school without disruption and in safety," a spokesman said. "We have to send out a clear message that poor behaviour will never be tolerated. Early intervention is a long-term, intensive process - and we need to help teenagers whose education is being hindered right now."

The charities, it seems, have a lot of convincing left to do.

Autism concern

Kate Williams, head of policy and public affairs at Ambitious About Autism, said she was "seeking clarity" from the Government about how the proposals would affect vulnerable pupils.

"Children with autism often have difficulty understanding instructions and coping with social interactions. They may also have sensory issues that mean they may respond in an unpredictable way to physical contact," she said.

"Both these factors have an impact on teachers' ability to carry out searches that are safe for both pupil and teacher. Our experience is that teachers require training in order to understand these factors, and carry out safe and appropriate searches."

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