Dalton's Diary

27th December 1996 at 00:00
The two biggest challenges facing any teacher are disciplining unruly pupils and motivating all children to perform to the best of their ability. Governors are not usually involved directly in pupil discipline, but I am in a unique position. I am a childminder, and, as such, have a right, established by a court of law, to beat the children in my care. As my headteacher explained to a parents' workshop on dealing with challenging behaviour: "We are not allowed to smack children, but Joan is - we could send them round to her house."

The current debate on bringing back corporal punishment in schools seems to me entirely spurious - tough guy posturing by demob-happy Tory MPs and ministers who know they will be out of office in six months and can say what they like. It is obscuring the real issues about school discipline.

The crucial factor in the childminding court case was that the parents of the child concerned used smacking as a form of discipline and had requested the childminder to do the same. While I would hate to see a return to the, "if I got a good hiding at school I got another from my dad when I got home" approach, it would help schools if parents supported them in whatever sanctions the staff felt appropriate. The norm now seems to be that if a child gets into trouble at school, the parents get very angry - with the teacher.

The problem of motivating pupils is even more fraught with difficulties. Ideally, one would do it by making what was taught as interesting and exciting as possible, but as the national curriculum, SATS and league tables have acquired a stranglehold on the system, there is much less scope for individual flair from either pupil or teacher.

My son's 11 to 14 high school has introduced an elaborate system of merit marks, badges and awards. Children collect merit marks for good work, which they eventually trade in for graded certificates. Again, parental back-up is crucial. It was suggested at the annual meeting for parents that they might like to re-enforce the system with more tangible rewards.

The trouble with this is that it only motivates the already motivated by formalising teacher and parent approbation. My own child views the whole process with an air of world-weary cynicism. A high-flyer almost against his will, he joked about selling his awards on the playground black market. He is nevertheless miffed to find how difficult it is for him to get credit for his good work.

He consistently scores at or near 100 per cent, so there is little scope for improvement and consequent recognition. But he does work hard and he would like his merit marks.

He has now worked out, of course, that he needs to do badly on a few assignments in order to be able to "improve" later. An early lesson in how to play the system.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands.

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