School discipline continues to be an issue that rightly gains the attention of the press, politicians, and parents. Many teachers, and the professional bodies which represent them, complain that indiscipline, and the inability of staff to do much about it, is one of the biggest problems facing our schools. As a former teacher, I agree with that.
I am mindful that there are complex reasons for disruptive behaviour and that individual pupils can react in different ways to different sanctions. I am particularly conscious that many voluntary-sector bodies in Scotland do a first-class job when dealing with difficult pupils and often in difficult circumstances. Groups such as Fairbridge, the Prince's Trust, and the ETEN (Education, Training and Employment Now) project in West Dunbartonshire are some, and there is also the example of Spark of Genius as a very successful private sector programme.
All of this tells us that there has to be some flexibility about how we tackle the issue, but I also believe that it is not an option to allow the complexities of the causes to cloud our judgment about the solutions. We need clarity of vision and zero tolerance when it comes to persistent troublemakers. By this, I mean the 2,000 or so pupils in Scotland who are either permanently expelled from school or who are excluded five times or more for a lengthy period.
We need to understand that the serious level of indiscipline is costing taxpayers in Scotland millions of pounds - pound;5.6 million for the 107,000 school days which are lost each year when the taxpayer is forking out for excluded pupils not at school and sent home without anything to do; the pound;1.4m which is the cost of emergency services call-outs to school violence; and the pound;2.6m which is the estimate - fairly conservative - of the cost of the 36,000 school days lost because teachers are off for stress-related incidents.
I have spent a long time listening to those on the front line and have spent time looking at various pilot schemes under the heading "second chance schools" - not sin-bins, as some newspapers seem to prefer - such as those which operate in East Leeds and at Loughshore, Belfast, and similar schools in some states of America and in Scandinavia.
They are deliberately termed "second chance schools" because some youngsters need an opportunity to understand exactly why their behaviour is so unacceptable and the damage that they do, not only to their teachers and the well-behaved majority but, just as importantly, to themselves and their families. They need a second chance to put things right. That demands a combination of specialist staff, a great deal of patience and dedication, and small group tuition - but also a very firm approach to make it abundantly clear that their bad behaviour will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
So how much does it cost? To deal with all 2,000 persistent offenders across Scotland would cost somewhere over pound;20m, and that is not possible within the current tight budget constraints. So it would have to start on a pilot basis in areas where there is the highest total of persistent troublemakers.
What sticks in my throat, and I'm sure in the throats of taxpayers, is the pound;5.6m which is shelled out every year on education for youngsters who are either at home doing nothing or out on the streets causing trouble. I am appalled to read Scottish Government statistics which show that, in 85 per cent of school exclusions, absolutely no effort is made to provide any education during the period of the exclusion.
Part of this policy is also about ensuring that we take control of discipline away from politicians and bureaucrats and give it back to teachers. As things stand just now, many local authorities are attempting to deal with the problem by setting exclusion targets. For me, this beggars belief: on what moral grounds can a local authority decide, at the start of the year, what is an "acceptable" exclusion target?
I find it astonishing that teachers and headteachers have such limited power over discipline. In too many cases, their hands are tied because they are unable to impose effective sanctions without encountering a lengthy process of referral to those who supposedly have more knowledge than they do. Indeed in some cases, when consultation with local authorities is thought necessary, not even headteachers appear to have enough powers to deal with unruly children.
I know that when indiscipline occurs it should be dealt with firmly, fairly and quickly. There should be no time for the youngster, his or her classmates and the teacher to forget the details of what happened and the reason for punishment. At present, there is often a large burden of paperwork which accompanies the reporting of disciplinary issues, paperwork that often involves a lengthy procedure which means the issue isn't dealt with until several days, sometimes weeks later, by which time the whole process has often become pointless. Teachers must have more control; otherwise, it will be impossible to gain the trust of their pupils and that's when the real trouble starts.
Common sense tells us that children are far more content and perform better in well-disciplined schools than in schools where discipline is weak. The effects of poor discipline are obvious, as are the results if the matter is not properly dealt with.
We need a system where headteachers have more control over discipline policy in their own schools, and we need to ensure that there are several options available to them when the going gets tough. "Second chance centres" are a very important part of the answer.
This is an extract from an address to the Scottish Conservative Party's education conference last month
Liz Smith speaks on education for the Scottish Conservatives.