Putting a 'why' in behaviour

23rd September 2011 at 01:00

It's official. David Cameron and Michael Gove are going to make school discipline a key part of their education drive. The prime minister announced earlier this month that he is in favour of "tough love", while Michael Gove promises a far stronger approach to school discipline, including greater ability for teachers to restrain pupils by using physical force, and tighter rules on truancy and disruptive behaviour.

Their comments have produced a shower of abuse. Much of it fails to understand that it is those students with least who suffer the most from ill-discipline in schools. Fifteen years ago, Tony Blair reorientated Labour from a concern primarily for the perpetrators of crime to those who were the victims. We are now witnessing a similar change in thinking on school discipline, with the concern shifting away from those who behave badly towards those who suffer from it. Make no mistake: a sea change is on its way.

The danger is, as we saw with the August riots, that the debate becomes polarised. The left highlights the backgrounds of those who create the problems, while the right resorts all too easily to the "strong arm of the law" as the catch-all solution. What we need is an intelligent approach towards school discipline that fuses the analysis of left and right. For those with little prospect of employment, or who lack a stable home background, there will always be less incentive to behave in a way that we might like. Equally, you cannot avoid individual responsibility. Not all those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds behave poorly at school, while plenty of "toffs" behave appallingly.

So, here is my five-point plan for excellent school discipline. First, ensure the school rules and values have buy-in from the whole community - teachers, pupils, support staff and parents. Second, communicate the rules and punishments regularly to pupils and parents, so no one can say they did not know about them. Third, ensure the rules are applied rigorously and fairly by and to all.

Fourth, give pupils positions of responsibility, which will breed confidence and character. These should be chosen in a system that is seen to be fair, with pupils voting. Student voice remains all talk for too many schools, which are reluctant to entrust their charges with authority over others. In assemblies, it is more effective for pupils to talk about the importance of abiding by the rules and upholding the values and ethos of the school than for teachers to do so.

Fifth, punishment should be intelligent. The experience of far too many is that the punishment they receive makes them angry and does nothing to make them want to avoid committing the same offence in the future. Re-offending rates in Sweden, where the criminal justice system is based on restorative justice, are up to four times less than in the UK. Punishment in school should educate, not agitate.

Intelligent discipline systems in schools, which many currently have, will transform the outlook for all. But let us remember that the riots were caused in part because the balance had been tilted too far away from the perpetrators to the victims of crime. In schools, we need to give equal weight to thinking about why poor behaviour occurs as to punishing it when it arises. That way, we will have not only better schools but a better society, too.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College, Berkshire.

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