Bring back zero tolerance

21st April 2000 at 01:00
We have to turn the clock back if we want to restore standards of learning and discipline, says George McMillan.

SCOTTISH schools are on the slide. Report after report - and our own experience - tell us. Our children are failing to reach as high standards in literacy and numeracy as most of Europe, if not the world. The first reaction of the education gurus? Deny the premise. The second reaction is to tinker with the failed new system yet again. End result: things get worse - teachers and pupils become even more demoralised and standards fall even further.

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, many taking early retirement. I retired five years early without enhancement of pension. I just gave the system the two-finger sign and departed.

Without bringing myself into it, I could list the names of at least a dozen skilled, efficient, conscientious, hard-working and successful teachers who left teaching early in disgust at what was happening to once highly respected establishments, models of the Scottish senior secondary school of the first half of the 20th century.

The loss of these teachers is in itself a severe blow. Their departure had broken the continuity; they have not been given the opportunity to pass on their experience and expertise to young teachers beginning their careers.

The pattern is now set - a round of constant change, a hectic, panicky series of alterations to course, tacking to meet every fickle change of wind, to accommodate every breeze, every rumour of a new wonder-method.

Bullying, for instance, is a recurring problem nowadays, yet it was dealt with easily in years gone by. One headmaster said to me: "There's only one bully in this school and that's me!"

The answer to all the problems I have identified is a return to the commonsense approach of our predecessors. Dominies were appointed to teach all children how to read, write and count and to prepare the brighter pupils for entry to further education. They had to maintain discipline to ensure that the standards to which they taught the children satisfied the inspectors and the local board of education, otherwise they soon found themselves out of work. There was no nonsense of social education as such, although the discipline instilled in school obviously spilled over into society and had a beneficial effect on the level of accepted behaviour generally. Otherwise, social education, especially sex education, was a matter for the parents and the church, or perhaps the family doctor, but certainly not the dominie.

Mainstream schools should be for the majority of the children. Those children who are seriously physically handicapped or who have severe learning difficulties should be taught in separate estalishments with specialist teachers. All those responsibilities for social and sex education, for guidance, for learning support and for "care-bears" for the severely handicapped should be lifted. Teachers could then concentrating on their essential task of teaching.

Since the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, I have heard it said that teachers cannot be blamed for not keeping discipline. I favour the zero-tolerance approach myself. I am sure that, if no bad behaviour at all were tolerated - no dropping of litter, no vandalism, no refusal to do homework, no bad language, no bullying, no impertinence - this could be a starting-point for improving standards in schools.

The punishment does not need to be severe, but punishment must follow bad behaviour and reward good behaviour - and this immediately. There should be no delay; delays lessen the impact on the pupils concerned and their classmates. Above all, cut out the paperwork which punishes the teacher more than the pupil.

Teachers and janitors will have to be involved - as they were in the old days - in regular policing and patrolling of schools and playgrounds to ensure good behaviour throughout the school day. It's comical really that, at an excellent school such as Morgan Academy in Dundee, where I started my teaching career in the 1960s, at a time when even the worst pupil behaved like an angel compared to some of today's louts, there was strict supervision of corridors, playgrounds and even toilets.

Yet in schools today, when misbehaviour and vandalism are such a problem, pupils roam freely throughout the grounds and buildings with no supervision whatsoever. In the evenings, janitors, even when they live on the premises, have no responsibility for keeping a lookout for vandals or worse.

In the past, teachers were much more independent. In their own classrooms, they were monarchs of all they surveyed. Provided they were keeping their classes orderly and industrious and provided they were achieving acceptable results in the examinations, teachers were left alone. Nowadays there is far too much interference from above - instructions and directives, new initiatives and methodology. If teachers are not politically correct in all they do, say and - dare I say it? - think, their lives are made a misery by their bosses.

We should revert to the old, well-tried and highly successful system of appointing teachers and running a school: just make sure you've got a good 'un, set the goals and the limits, then leave the teacher to get on with it. This done, there would be an instant improvement in teacher morale and a dramatic rise in educational standards.

George McMillan was formerly assistant headteacher, Perth Academy.

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