Praise the pupils andpress the politicians

24th January 1997 at 00:00
The country is awash with ways of encouraging children to behave better. It did not take last week's conference on positive discipline to realise that. Schools have been trying out their own ideas, usually without external funding. Some of the initiatives have drawn local or national media attention. Government-supported efforts to let schools learn good practice from each other have been under way for some time. Among both primary and secondary teachers, there is much enthusiasm for sharing the lessons.

At political level the motives may be mixed, yet there is evidence of constructive thinking. Examples of bad behaviour, especially the few notorious ones which get tabloid headlines, encourage MPs to find scapegoats but also to promote remedies. Excessive use of exclusions is widely recognised as signalling failure, except by some teacher spokesmen.

The two main parties join forces in favouring home-school contracts, although neither has indicated how it would keep the lawyers at bay when allegations of breach of contract began to fly. The Government is putting modest funding the way of some city schools in the hope of developing promising initiatives. Recognition that teachers and pupils are at least as likely to come up with good ideas as civil servants, and therefore encouragement of a bottom-up rather than top-down approach, is welcome.

But if success is school based, it is likely to cost. Altering behaviour patterns is labour intensive. The time teachers need to spend has to be bought. But staffing levels are being trimmed, extra resources withdrawn. Falkirk Council, for example, deployed 30 teachers to help with the linked tasks of improving discipline and promoting learning. They will probably become victims of budget cuts.

So there is the familiar mismatch: the Government heralds a funding initiative to find ways of replacing exclusion as a disciplinary tool, but school-based projects with the same intention are jeopardised for lack of investment in teacher time if not with straight cash. What Raymond Robertson promises, his colleague George Kynoch withdraws. The education minister announced new money for behaviour projects on the same day as the local government minister was telling council leaders that they had no need of extra grants.

The irony is not lost in schools. Government commitments appear to be tokens only, issued with an election in the offing. Mr Robertson would decry such scepticism: from funding behaviour initiatives to promoting better teaching and learning, the Government's intention has been to raise standards and that should not be impugned.

Some good ideas come free. Remember to praise is a popular injunction to teachers these days. Pupils, like employees, respond to encouragement and not to denigration. But for school managers, the conditions in which progress is made and praise merited are different from those in which staff are withdrawn and projects shut down.

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