Talk without action won't rescue respect

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire

This week David Cameron promised to restore authority to parents and teachers in an age dominated by rudeness and anti-social behaviour. Hooray! He accused Labour of encouraging irresponsibility by promoting individual rights ahead of civic duty and community cohesion. Mr Blair, he says, has done little to reduce anti-social conduct or criminality. Odd, when one considers how vilified the Prime Minister is by liberals for locking up so many people and being so tough on liberties. But no matter. Who worries about the facts?

Mr Cameron wants to see a "revolution in responsibility" to restore respect. The Tory leader has spoken from his dais in Westminster. I expect teachers will have noticed a huge change in their classrooms as a result.

Pupils will be sitting upright, turning up on time and putting up their hand to answer questions. Schools will have become much happier places, full of respectful, responsible pupils.

The world, alas, is not like this. There are deep problems in our schools and on our streets, but they will not be cured overnight by a party leader exhorting us to do differently. I used to be a bit of a rebel when young.

As a newcomer to teaching, I suspected that the senior management team represented a repressive regime whose purpose was to do the kids down, limit their fun, their growth into individuals. I now think otherwise. I see misbehaviour among the young as the biggest cause of damage to schools and the greatest limiter of children's achievement.

Schools in the 1970s were too authoritarian and needed to show more respect for children as individuals. The pendulum has now swung too far towards individuality and away from corporate values. Who has been doing the swinging? Certainly judges and lawyers, who have made a great deal of money out of it. So too have liberals, who rarely live in areas of high crime or send their children to schools where discipline is a problem. But they know the values they want to impose on others.

Of course, Mr Cameron is right. We do need to give more authority back to teachers and parents. But this transformation will not come about by politicians spouting hot air and trying to score cheap points from each other. We need a constructive dialogue to build a new consensus around schools having firm rules, parents who are accountable and children who will ultimately be excluded if they do not meet the requirements of the school.

Yes, that will mean more special centres to deal with such pupils, and the regime in them will need to be tough. Very illiberal. But in practice, as any head will tell you, the mere threat of expulsion is often enough to keep the vast majority in control. What children need are very clear guidelines, and certain knowledge of the penalties that will be incurred for crossing those lines.

Does all this sound reactionary? Maybe, but I no longer care. What I do care about is all children being able to learn in decent schools, taught by teachers who are not in fear of being abused, and being brought up in decent, safe environments. And I'm not too keen on shallow point-scoring by politicians; nor by educationists.

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