Children and parents behaving badly
Gillian Shephard made clear at the Tory party conference that she is determined to tackle disruptive influences in schools. This is a move in the right direction and not before time, particularly as some of the measures - such as enforcing detention - not so long ago formed part of a school's armoury against recalcitrant pupils. That, I suppose, was before this Government started promoting parental rights and forgot about their responsibilities.
There is no doubt that behaviour in a minority of schools is bad. There is equally no doubt that pupils generally have become much more difficult to manage. Sometimes, the way schools are run contributes to disruption and these schools have to change if they are to give the acceptable majority of their children a half-decent education.
However, schools are more often pretty helpless when faced with a hard core of miscreants whose antics have an adverse effect on the rest. The addition of a few fairly peripheral measures will not help schools deal with these children: indeed there need to be more adequate measures outside schools once they have exhausted the methods open to them.
It is sad - and wrong - that schools are having to deal with children who: * appear in school with few, if any, social skills. Some of them, from an early age, use foul language and are physically aggressive. In doing so they match their parents perfectly; * have no concept of basic hygiene or eating habits; * have no respect for other people, no care for their surroundings and no pride in themselves; * cannot pay attention and are abnormally restless; * can't keep awake because they have been watching the most disgusting material on television and video into the early hours; * have parents who refuse to accept the notion of authority and encourage their children to flaunt it, who refuse to acknowledge that they have responsibilities but know their rights and for whom the concept that the good of the many places restraint on the freedom of the individual is unknown.
We see more and more children like this, many as young as four or five. Why on earth should teachers have to cope with them on top of everything else? How can they?
I'm talking about parental failure, about a decline in the standards and values within society whereby the boundaries of acceptability are continually being pushed back. This is a society which accepts a huge increase in the number of divorces as a matter of social evolution, which sees the massive increase of children deliberately born of single parents as of no great consequence, and which rounds savagely on those of us who see this as a social time bomb and defines us as unfeeling, uncaring and above all not understanding the rights of individuals. I would argue the opposite. There are families, single and nuclear, whose circumstances and efforts to bring up their children need every bit of help we can give them but there is a limit to what schools in particular can do to deal with the product of our current moral climate.
The problem for schools - and for the education service - is how to neutralise and hopefully improve the bad elements without undermining the rest. What is certain is that schools can't be left to fend for themselves. They need the help of their local authorities and too often they simply don't get it. I know of some which are blatantly failing in their duties with difficult children and there are people within them who still won't accept that fault can lie with the family.
So, what's to be done? For a start we can begin to redress the mismatch between rights and responsibilities and the Secretary of State clearly intends to have a crack at this. She has reintroduced the notion of home-school contracts and although these contracts may have no legal basis, they do set out expectations on both sides and are useful as a benchmark in disputes. They won't be effective in all cases, of course, because the notion of rights allied to utter selfishness and waywardness is too ingrained in some parents and children but they should be a feature of every school.
Every school must be free to adopt enforceable sanctions in the pursuit of proper standards and values and this goes much wider than homing in on detention. These sanctions must include the ability to make young people and their parents pay - financially or in kind - for the consequences of their actions. Providing these are fair and understood by parents they can be enforced. Schools must be allowed to institute proper discipline for the good of everyone and if parents refuse to accept them they must go somewhere else.
Which brings me to local education authorities including social services. They must be seen to support the school where it is clear that a particular child or children is having a disruptive influence. They must also prevent children being bounced around the system by being thrown out of one school after another. There are some children who simply should not be let loose in civilised surroundings. A change in the law is necessary to restrict parents' present rights of admission to any school with room. If such children have emotional and behavioural difficulties they should be treated as the current law demands. Too often that does not happen.
If the children are not psychologically disturbed authorities must make alternative provision and not expect the school to soldier on regardless. This assumes that the assessment procedures are in good working order, that they have alternative provision and programmes, and that they are identifying possible trouble early.
We have to get to a position where the national curriculum fits children rather than shoehorning them into it. At one level this means that Government's approach to selection, while right, needs to be substantially extended. At an individual level it means that special programmes may need to be constructed outside the present curriculum to meet the needs of pupils who are simply bored out of their minds by what is dished up to them.
Finally we must look to deterrents other than normal sanctions to deal with the horrors - parents and children - emerging in our schools. This is always difficult because schools and local authorities have responsibilities to both children and staff. There can be no reason why staff should live in fear of intimidation, assault or false accusation and they should know that the law and their employers are prepared to back them to the hilt. That certainly means a change in the Children Act which puts teachers at the mercy of malicious allegations, and probably requires moves to ensure that parents and children are answerable in law for their actions.
The Secretary of State has made the right noises and some of the right moves but schools need more to protect them against the product of a decline in standards and values overseen by successive governments.
Michael Stoten was formerly director of education for the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea