The line has to be drawn

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
It is a long time since any pupil was permanently excluded from Holy Rood, and temporary exclusions are very few. We are never happy when a child has to be excluded, because it's an indication of failure on our part as well as a sign of rejection of the school's standards by the pupil.

The new guidelines on exclusion from the Scottish Office have much to recommend them. Exclusion should only be used as a last resort, alternatives should be available, children and their parents should be listened to and treated fairly. Who could argue with that? However, the guidelines underplay the resources required if schools are to do any more than physically contain problems.

Young people have to be encouraged to value their school and the people within it, and research on school ethos suggests that they do - 99 per cent of Holy Rood parents surveyed felt that they had good access to the school and that their children were treated fairly. Teachers go to considerable lengths to support pupils in difficulty, and the climate of the school is positive and motivating.

Nonetheless, we do young people no favours if we deny them the vital admonition that actions have consequences, and that serious misbehaviour will trigger a proportionate response. Would the children of Arkansas who peppered their classmates with bullets have acted as they did, if they had learned from earlier misdemeanours that wrong-doing can have consequences? Did those who were responsible for the education of Duncan Ferguson, the young Everton striker, really teach him that violent behaviour can get you into big trouble?

There is a tendency in our post-Christian secular society to explain away wrong-doing and to obfuscate anti-social behaviour with limp sociological cant. Young people need to know that their actions have an impact on themselves and others.

The prevailing emphasis on raising attainment puts schools under severe pressure to deal effectively with children's behavioural difficulties. Teachers cannot be expected to teach a foreign language or explain the mysteries of quadratic equations with mayhem going on in the corner. They have a right to peace to teach and children have the right to peace to learn.

At the beginning of the new session, all staff at Holy Rood agreed that not a single teaching period throughout the year would be disrupted. We are well aware that the most effective antidote to misbehaviour is not retribution or punishment but good teaching. We have put in place a series of measures to ensure that classes can continue without interruption, even when one or two individuals are determined to derail the train. These include an additional teacher at certain pressure points in the timetable, a supervision system and a counselling group run by a person of inexhaustible patience and forbearance from the education authority's support services.

Parents have a right to expect schools to be well ordered places of learning where their children can be safe, secure and enabled to achieve their very best. The vast majority are very supportive. But like all schools, we are sometimes discouraged and debilitated by the abdication of responsibility of those parents who refuse to acknowledge the misdemeanours of their offspring or who leave the school to salvage situations without their support. Sadly, they often reap the consequences of their myopia when it is too late for all concerned.

Schools should not flinch from setting high standards, nor from encouraging communities to endorse them. Parents need to be reassured that schools will have realistic expectations and will do their utmost to resolve problems. In the last analysis, however, it must be recognised that the most compelling message about serious misbehaviour that can be sent home to parents is Darren on the doorstep.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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