An easy fix to gain votes

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Pupil behaviour is an election topic favourite but, unlike TV dramas, needs long-term solutions, writes Ken Reid

There are two perennial points when you can guarantee that classroom discipline will make the front page of national newspapers. The first is during the silly season, when most sensible teachers are sunbathing on the beach. The second is when a general election is looming and schooling moves to the top of the political agenda.

The only two notions that seem to concern the general public are that the behaviour of youngsters today is much worse than in previous generations, and that it is easy to "fix" those schools which contain serious elements of disaffected and disruptive pupils; which, of course, it is not.

The public's perception was recently reinforced by the TV drama A Head of the Class, in which Julie Walters portrayed a heroic and single-minded crusading headteacher, determined to prevent Stephen Lawrence's former school closing by getting it out of the dreaded special measures.

While the first segment of the drama was decidedly over the top, television critics covered many column inches commenting on the intimidatory nature of some pupils, the laxness and disinterest of some parents, and the incompetence of some members of staff.

The reality is that, with the general election pending, politicians are intent on giving us a list of their favourite solutions. So, for example, the Tories will scrap appeals panels and force parents to argue their case in court. And Labour will allow disruptive pupils to be removed from class and retain appeals panels.

A variety of new measures to tighten classroom discipline are proposed.

These include the use of more parenting orders, with courts able to impose fines on neglectful parents and instruct them to attend parenting lessons.

For schools with serious disciplinary problems, Welsh inspection agency Estyn will be able to undertake more regular school checks or inspections.

One set of politicians wishes to increase the numbers of off-site units, like pupil-referral units. Another proposes more on-site, social integration units for those who cannot be taught in class. Viva la difference.

The right will fund CCTV cameras in every school, the use of metal detectors and random drug testing. High-achieving schools will not have to take their share of disruptive pupils.

The middle and left are consulting on giving more search powers for heads, on better policeschool liaison and on the wider use of fixed-penalty notices for truancy and indiscipline. "Turnaround schools" would be established in most local education authorities.

Whatever the rhetoric, British society is suffering from a mass breakdown of traditional family values. Inspectors in England suggest that at least one school in 10 has serious discipline problems. Nearly 60 per cent of pupils in England have failed to achieve A to C grades in maths and English GCSEs over the past few years. Too many are not properly literate and numerate.

While the Anti-Social Behaviour Act and Children Act are beginning to address the social and professional issues, too many teachers and heads do not feel they have the support of parents and the public to tackle the real issues head on. And this is where schools need help from politicians.

Rather than imposing a national curriculum which stifled innovation, vocational opportunities and genuine subject inquiry, politicians could have offered pupils the chance to select subjects from a much wider range mirroring their respective interests, needs and likely career paths.

Despite the fact that classroom discipline will become an issue in the British election, there is an opportunity for the Assembly government to put its own stamp on how to improve behaviour. Unlike England, there is no need for this to divide the parties.

Surely all politicians could agree that pupils need an innovative curriculum which stretches the able and facilitates those with special needs. Then we should ensure pupils feel safe within their local communities when in school.

We need to reduce truancy and bullying. Most of all, we need to stimulate pupils' interests in learning and prevent boredom.

If these aims are achieved, there will be much less need for pupils'

indiscipline in schools to take centre stage as an election issue. One of the advantages of being a small country is that we can find Welsh solutions for Welsh problems.

Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education and author of Truancy: short and long-term solutions, published by Routledge Falmer

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