An end to the murky waters of exclusion
"A contented hum," I replied.
This was not quite what he expected. But in a good school, like ours, a sense of order is essential and can be detected as soon as you set foot in the place. The reverse, sadly, is also true.
As chairman of governors at two Hackney schools I'm well aware that, these days, there are few easy sanctions to enforce good discipline. Corporal punishment has gone, thank goodness, and so have lines. We are left with late detentions and, as a last resort, exclusions.
The head of our primary school is proud that, in 20 years, he has permanently excluded just one pupil. Occasionally, there is a short exclusion to enable everyone to calm down. But otherwise we feel it is our duty to cope with, and educate, children who may be damaged and need help I am also chairman of governors at the largest secondary school in Hackney. Like the primary, it is Roman Catholic. But in every other sense we are a mixed school, with children's family origins stemming from all over the world, from Vietnam to Colombia.
Creating a sense of order and calm, so essential for the maintenance of a good learning environment, is harder in a secondary school where adolescent hormones start to kick in. Inevitably, arguments blow up in the playground and fights occur outside school.
In Hackney this can be particularly worrying, as it is often linked with semi-gang warfare originating in the local housing estates. Fortunately, these conflicts are seldom inter-racial.
Maintaining the right atmosphere requires vigilance. I was once sitting in a meeting when the noise in the playground rose by a couple of decibels. The head and a senior teacher slipped out, and two minutes later the noise had died down.
When it comes to discipline it is important to lay down ground rules in advance, so that staff, pupils and parents all know what is expected and what will not be tolerated. On rare occasions there is a serious incident involving the safety of pupils. I remember, some years ago, permanently excluding a pupil who had, in a science lesson, overturned a big bench on to his fellow pupils, headbutted two girls, attempted to attack his teacher, and was restrained by a consortium of the staff.
At the governors' meeting his mother said the boy - who was about six feet tall though just 15 - was upset that morning because he had a migraine. He was permanently excluded and the parent did not even bother to appeal.
There are times when we sympathise with parents. Often they are shocked and horrified when their children get into trouble; but others are in total denial and refuse to recognise their child has acted wrongly. It always helps us if remorse is expressed.
Current exclusion procedures are unsatisfactory. The whole process involving appeals panels is quasi-legal: there is a great deal of procedure, protocol and paperwork and any error can send you back, as in snakes and ladders, to the beginning. No one is on oath.
Parents are frequently at sea, not knowing which way to turn. Alternatively, they may have expensive advice from a solicitor or an organisation which offers to help - not always for disinterested reasons.
The recent furore over the Glyn technology school in Surrey may, however, prove a turning-point. The school hit the national headlines when former education secretary Estelle Morris expressed public disapproval over the appeals panel's decision to overturn the head's decision to exclude a pupil, ruling that he had not followed the correct procedure properly.
Her successor Charles Clarke has now said the procedure will be changed, forcing panels to take the needs of the school into account, as well as the pupil. Crucially, panels will no longer be able to overturn heads'
decisions on a mere technicality.
Improving the way the panels operate is far better than abolishing them, which would simply lead to more cases going to court. But the process remains too legalistic, complex and slow. It is in everyone's interests that if a parent disputes an exclusion, their case is dealt with speedily and fairly, preferably before the appeals panel is called in.