Crime and punishment, Scots style

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Ministers are about to reveal their latest thoughts on classroom discipline. David Henderson reports on the feeling in schools.

"Crisis? What crisis? I have been in this game for 20 years and we have always had this." Alan McLean, principal psychologist in north-east Glasgow and spokesman for the British Psychological Society, does not support the thesis of growing indiscipline and bad behaviour in schools and challenges union leaders and others to prove it.

Mr McLean, the author of three teachers' packs on promoting positive behaviour, observes: "The kids at the heavy end of the scene have always been there. There has always been a small core of kids that are unmanageable. But there is no evidence of a growing problem in schools.

"Low-level, constant irritation is the bane of teachers' lives. Violent, aggressive and highly disruptive pupils are in a minority. It is just that we have got a limelight effect at the moment."

He believes schools have made substantial progress in the 1990s in improving relationships between teachers and pupils and between pupils and pupils, evidence of the burgeoning culture of school improvement. As for restoring corporal punishment, parents do not want it and neither do teachers. "Schools are much, much more sophisticated, calm places than 10 years ago. I am utterly convinced of that. If there is an increase in exclusions, it is to do with teacher stress, league tables and other pressures.

"I think there is a greater respect for teachers and teachers have a greater respect for kids. Kids like teachers who set limits, set reasonable rules, who convey authority well, are on the ball and who can deal with things without reverting to heavy bully-boy discipline."

Mr McLean believes there is a greater awareness of the limitations of sanctions and the benefits of positive approaches. "The general culture is far more positive. There is an awareness about the role of the teacher in kids' behavioural problems, a greater acceptance that schools make a difference and that teachers make a difference. Teachers' behaviour is important."

Concepts of the "self-reflecting school" and "self-reflecting professional" are part of that, Mr McLean says.

The new emphasis on accountability and quality has moved the system on. "Twenty years ago, if you talked about discipline, you were regarded as a weak teacher," he adds. Today's more caring climate includes a heightened awareness of special educational needs and issues such as child protection. Delicate matters that would not have been raised are more likely to be brought out into the open.

Discipline, however, remains a concern of the Educational Institute of Scotland which is financing an independent survey of 1,000 teachers in 112 secondaries and 2,240 teachers in 560 primaries. The exercise will be completed by March.

Fred Forrester, the union's depute general secretary, is more circumspect than Mr McLean, "We cannot say there is not a problem in Scotland because members complain about it and we had the high-profile case at St Augustine's in Glasgow," Mr Forrester comments. "Such incidents are less common than in England and perhaps we do not have a total breakdown."

Mr Forrester accepts Mr McLean's arguments about improvements in approaches to discipline, a fact reflected in higher staying on rates and the involvement of pupils in decision-making. But this is offset by growing poverty and deprivation in cities and urban areas. "This has a bad effect on educational attainment and discipline. So let's not go overboard," he cautions.

Across the country, local authorities are pressing ahead with positive behaviour strategies. Stirling is the first to address education within a children's committee. A recent paper on positive behaviour, anti-bullying and exclusion was backed by examples of behaviour codes, peer conciliation, circle time and buddy systems.

The council is also setting up a behaviour support service for primaries and secondaries.

Margaret Doran, head of schools' services in Stirling, says: "All the curricular policies will continue but the two priorities are ethos in the school and relationships. Both are crucial to improving learning and the quality of teaching.

"The hiatus down south is because schools have their own budgets. To give additional support to children who require support for learning means they cannot afford it and these children suffer."

Mike Hay, headteacher of Tynecastle High in Edinburgh, has piloted a "discipline for learning" strategy and is impressed with the early results, although he is "not claiming miracles for it".

An approach based on praise, rewarding effort and clear rules has seen the number of classroom referrals fall "dramatically" by almost half. Of 850 pupils, more than 600 were awarded merit certificates last year under a "be all you can be" strategy.

Mr Hay says: "In our Standard grade results this year the number of 1s almost doubled and the number getting three or more Credits rose from 27 to 35 per cent. Other grades went up commensurately."

A similar approach at Arkleston primary in Paisley is based around the principle of "catch them being good". Only three punishment exercises have been issued since the start of term and only 13 last year in a primary of 365 pupils.

Children who have particular difficulties are given individual targets and rewards.

Margaret Byrne, the school's headteacher, says: "We do not take good behaviour, hard work and manners for granted. We have lots of stickers, stamps and merit badges and teachers are able to give children points any time they want to. Children get points that lead to merit badges and certificates and 'come as you please days'."

Parents, pupils and teachers at Arkleston like the new approach because it offers a quick and effective way of dealing with classroom discipline.

"All children need to be told they are doing well and teachers too often in the past expected good behaviour and punished when they did not get it, " Mrs Byrne says.

Such approaches at Tynecastle and Arkleston seem certain to form the basis of the latest Scottish Office advice. It is a step removed from the troubles south of the border. Touch wood.

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