Give teachers power to punish, says task force

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Steer committee calls for teachers' legal authority over pupils to be brought up to date. William Stewart reports

Teachers' legal authority over their pupils is essential to school discipline but is based on an ancient legal doctrine open to challenge in the courts.

That is the conclusion of Sir Alan Steer's committee on pupil behaviour which today will call for teachers' rights to be laid out in an act of Parliament for the first time.

In theory, common law doctrine of "in loco parentis" gives teachers the same authority over their pupils as parents have to protect their children.

But, the Steer report notes, most of the legal judgements supporting it are old, one dates back to 1865. Moreover it gives teachers no authority over an 18-year-old. The group fears that leaves staff vulnerable in an increasingly litigious society.

The Elton committee, which reported on school discipline 16 years ago, reached exactly the same conclusions. Many of its recommendations were accepted by Kenneth Baker, the then Conservative education secretary. But to the disappointment of Lord Elton, the former teacher and Conservative government minister who chaired the committee, the call for new legislation on teachers' rights over pupils was rejected.

It is something he still believes should be introduced, he told The TES this week. "It is important that children, parents and teachers should all know where they stand and they should not have to go to the courts to find out," he said.

Lord Elton welcomed the Steer committee's decision to adopt his report's recommendations for legislation in full. They stated that the new law should establish that a teacher's general authority over pupils was: "Not delegated by the parent but derives from the teacher's position as a teacher. In matters relating to the school, this authority overrides that of the pupil's parent."

It would include the right to set homework and punish pupils for breaking school rules. Such punishments should be reasonable and proportionate. They might include extra academic work, tasks to help the school, including repairing damage; detention and the withdrawal of privileges.

The legislation would extend the teacher's authority to off-site activities such as school trips and other situations, such as bullying outside school, where pupils' behaviour impinged on the school.

The Steer committee wants the new law to "encompass something that will make clear teachers' right to restrain a pupil using reasonable force".

Sir Alan's taskforce also seeks to tackle discipline problems in post-Elton 21st-century schools: suggesting new powers on searching for drugs and weapons and guidelines on how to deal with the modern scourge of mobile phones.

STEER'S KEY DEMANDS

* New legislation making explicit teachers' right to discipline and restrain pupils using reasonable force;

* Schools to be given the right to apply for parenting orders;

* Local authorities to provide full-time education for excluded pupils from the sixth day of any exclusion, fixed term or permanent;

* From 2008, all secondaries, including academies and foundation schools, must belong to a local partnership sharing "hard-to-place pupils";

* All new schools to have space for pupil support services such as learning support units;

* Parents' right of appeal over exclusions supported;

* But heads' punishment decisions should not be over-ruled if the pupil's offence and school's compliance with the disciplinary process have been accepted;

* Schools should hold mandatory reintegration interviews for any pupil excluded for more than five days;

* Government should consider extending schools' right to search pupils for weapons to drugs and stolen property.

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