Whatever changes, discipline is paramount

20th February 2004 at 00:00
As society changes so too do the expectations and demands on schools. It is important to place the pressure where it ultimately is most keenly felt, in the classroom with teachers.

Examples from the past few years include the focus on enterprise in education, the issues of poor health and lack of exercise and the McCrone report fallout.

Through all the changes there is a constant, certainly in my experience and also in the narratives of schoolmasters long since gone. Discipline was, is and will remain that constant.

In the summer before starting my teaching career, I spent a holiday with three friends. All three had one year's teaching experience and were in a position to advise me. Perhaps they did but the only memory I retain vividly is receiving their collective wisdom on how to control classes.

Age and background are important here. The year was 1969. Corporal punishment was not only used but thriving in schools. Social inclusion didn't really feature: we were gingerly moving towards the idea that all children had equal value despite having different talents. It was a time of great head shaking for the purists or traditionalists.

The advice from my three sages was clear and concise: it's us against them.

Don't smile. Corporal punishment exists; use it as a tool in becoming a successful teacher. Become a classroom survivor and you might be able to teach but, initially, don't think about teaching and learning.

Echoes from a bygone age? I think not. In staffrooms throughout the land which daily topic heads the conversation list? Discipline was number one in 1969 and it has proved a stayer.

It is understandable, then, that two recent initiatives have been received with mixed emotions. The creation of behaviour co-ordinators, based on what seems to be sound practice, and the appointment of a so-called discipline tsar for schools are surely to be welcomed. I'm certain in most quarters they are seen as positive developments and I will not be alone in hoping they receive enthusiastic and optimistic support rather than being viewed with a degree of mistrust or cynicism.

The willingness of the Education Minister to put discipline openly on the agenda and to reinforce it with significant resourcing demonstrates real progress.

If we are to change how schools cope with pupil behaviour, there has to be an openness to the problem, an acceptance that it will not go away.

Learning how to succeed at engaging young people may be difficult, at times frustrating, sometimes incredibly so, but it is surely the only approach.

It is not only dangerous but openly insulting to underestimate how successfully teachers are performing with regard to discipline.

How often does the media inform us of structures in society collapsing? Family values, parental control and influence, respect for law and justice, regard for the rights and safety of others; all have disappeared - if popular opinion is correct - leaving young people without guidance and as purveyors of lawlessness on a wide scale. Yet, daily, teachers create effective, purposeful relationships with their pupils, coping with pressures which society at large finds difficult to manage.

Perhaps part of the secret lies in the constant focus on discipline.

This session I am working with colleagues on a new approach to pupil conduct. Parental input and pupil responsibility are at its centre. It embraces the principle that good classroom management must involve each teacher in solutions that can be lasting. The boldest element, however, may be our resolve to discuss progress regularly together. It is an acceptance that pupil conduct will always be on our agenda.

Discipline may remain the hardest nut to crack but sweeping it under the carpet is not an option. Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the erosion of the view of "them against us".

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's High, Glasgowe-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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