Should pupils have more rights?;No;Summer debate

6th August 1999 at 01:00
A former headteacher and a union leader clash over what young people should expect as their due in school

AFTER two decades of constant change, teachers' rights have been seriously eroded. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not attaching a very high degree of priority to any formal extension of pupil rights.

However, where good practice and common sense prevail, teachers automatically pay careful attention to pupils' views and certainly respect their rights. Likewise, pupils in those circumstances normally respect their teachers and others in authority, and act with a commendable degree of responsibility.

Rights should always bring responsibilities. Since minors by definition and by law have limited responsibilities, it is not to be assumed that they should have the same rights as adults.

There is too much emphasis these days on giving rights to consumers and diminishing those of the provider. Ultimately it is not in the interests of consumers for providers to be so harshly treated that they withdraw from the scene and seek an easier life elsewhere.

A recent Teacher Training Agency survey showed that more than two-thirds of A-level students leaving sixth forms refused even to contemplate teaching as a career because of the problems of dealing with difficult pupils. The pupils themselves suffer as a consequence. They are denied the best people as their teachers.

Extending pupil rights would be exploited by the disaffected minority, who already have a well-developed sense of grievance, often fostered by equally unreasonable parents.

Force-feeding youngsters with premature rights often does more harm than good. The younger the child, the more naturally selfish it is. Part of growing up is learning to accept responsibility and to be aware of the effects of your actions.

Advocates of pupil rights tend to forget that the teacher-pupil relationship is not an exact parallel to the one of producer and consumer in a market. The pupil is given no right as to whether he or she wishes to attend school.

Legal obligations are imposed upon schools to accept pupils to an extent regardless of their behaviour. State schools cannot easily exclude pupils permanently. Although doctors have recently been given the right to refuse to treat violent patients, no such rights exist for teachers, unless they are asserted de facto by unions such as mine. The right to an education, is sometimes abused by unreasonable parents, who insist that their offspring attend their first-choice school regardless of behaviour.

Anyone placed in authority can make mistakes. Like referees in a football match, instant decisions have to be made. Enhancing individual rights can easily make life impossible for the teacher. If teachers get it wrong, they must be corrected by management. This is best done on the quiet, and not in front of the children.

The general good requires the authority of teachers to be maintained. A teacher consistently getting it seriously wrong deserves dismissal. Giving pupils too many individual rights could erode the sensible use of authority in schools.

In practice everyone, including pupils, have rights which must be respected. Some are governed by statute and common law and are fairly obvious. As pupils grow up they are effectively given more rights and treated increasingly as adults. In return they are expected to exercise increased responsibility for themselves.

Practice will vary according to individual circumstances. It would be difficult to legislate for all pupils to have the same rights, no matter the local circumstances. This is an area for sound professional judgment.

The last thing teachers need is enhanced rights for pupils laid down either by statute or the (dreaded) Government guidance which often amounts to the same thing.

Nigel de Gruchy is general secretary of the National Association of School- masters Union of Women Teachers

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