Faced with the task this week of following up on the Prime Minister's recent promises to crack down on school indiscipline, Gillian Shephard trod a shrewd path between expectations and good sense.
John Major set out his own hopes on classroom discipline both in an interview in The Times and to a grant-maintained schools conference. Gillian Shephard and her officials, he announced, were already talking to teachers' representatives and action plans would follow soon. With their own expectations aroused, the teacher associations weren't exactly holding their breath, though David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers last week set out in response his own demands for change, pleading in support evidence on pupil and parent behaviour which colleagues in the other unions would mostly corroborate. In particular, he wanted a rethink on the current terms of trade on suspensions, with the return of indefinite exclusion as an essential weapon for heads and governors dealing with difficult or violent pupils. At present, he argued, there was no middle ground between short-term and permanent exclusion, while the (lost) right to exclude indefinitely would allow time to bring in other social and support services.
No one would disagree that the problem of violent behaviour in schools is growing and starting younger, or that there is in response an alarming escalation in the number of pupils expelled. Nor can teachers and fellow-pupils be expected to work with those who are demonstrably a danger to them, or liable to disrupt any lesson they go into. But it is much less clear that indefinite exclusion is the right answer, and the Education Secretary has rightly preferred to reject that, and look instead at varying the lengths of short-term exclusions.
As Mrs Shephard points out, the result of the indefinite exclusion regime which prevailed before the last round of reforms was to send too many children off into "a limbo of non-provision", with an inadequate home tuition service as the only backstop.
Yes, schools need time to bring in back-up services, but they often need to call for help earlier, and there should certainly be time-limits set for reporting back to governors, and clear safeguards to prevent children who need help slipping off the agenda and onto the streets.
For the truth is that virtually all of these disruptive children who make everyone else's lives a misery are themselves victims of disrupted homes, whether through broken relationships, unemployment or both. Providing measures to help schools deal with the results of this is one thing; dealing with the causes is another and goes far wider.
The scheme in Manchester reported on page 6, where education and social services are combining to help families in need from the nursery stage onwards is one of several tackling behaviour problems early on, before they arrive in the primary school, and an infinitely more constructive way of using human and financial resources than picking up the bill later for exclusions and their consequences.
It could be that the most productive course for the DFEE would be to develop its nursery programme along those lines, rather than through the vouchers market. Social behaviour could be the most important curriculum imperative for both three and four-year olds, so that they can arrive in the reception classes able to get along with other children and adults, ready to learn, rather than ready for a fight.