Why discipline laws behave badly

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Teachers currently experience a poisonous combination of circumstances. Their professionalism is challenged; they are told by Government that the performance of many teachers does not meet Government imposed targets. And in schools the job of teaching has become harder and harder.

Increased pressure on teachers comes from a variety of quarters. The Government's imposed accountability mechanisms have impinged heavily on the act of teaching itself. Class sizes have risen and the slow drip of constant, ill-informed criticism from the press and Government have all contributed to undermining morale.

Added to these circumstances is another development. Talk to teachers and they will tell you that the behaviour of a significant minority of pupils is getting worse and the numbers are growing.

In November, the Government will be introducing legislation on pupil discipline and behaviour. A number of the measures proposed, such as greater flexibility in the use of exclusion powers, are not contentious. However, I do not believe the Government understands fully the nature of the problem.

When a child hurls a chair across a classroom or persistently abuses a teacher, despite being subjected to every behaviour strategy known to education, the teacher involved wants to know two things: how to stop that situation and how to prevent it occurring again. At that moment, explanations of the cause are not at the forefront of the minds of the teacher or the other pupils.

For the majority of pupils, the child presents exactly the same problem. Strathclyde University research for the National Union of Teachers found that pupils themselves give the highest priority to safety and security in schools and they deeply resent their learning being interrupted by other pupils.

If teachers do not receive backing for their professional judgment from their employers or governing bodies, it is for their professional organisation to step in.

In this situation, the NUT acts unequivocally and effectively to support teachers. We will sanction industrial action up to and including a strike where pupils who have been excluded are returned to school by governing bodies, appeals panels or local education authorities against the professional judgment of the headteacher and the teaching staff. We have been giving this support without hesitation and with success for a very long time; indeed as long as such incidents have occurred.

Often we have not publicised these cases. Media attention can mean publicly identifying the pupil in the case. In addition, quiet negotiation can lead to the parents or the pupils concerned accepting alternative schooling without dispute.

However, finding solutions to individual cases is not the same as finding solutions to the underlying problems. Some of the changes to legislation will help teachers. It is not acceptable for lay people at whatever level to ignore the headteacher's professional judgment. That must be given prime consideration when exclusions are under scrutiny. Nor should the well-being of other pupils and their teachers be brushed aside without explanation. The efficient and effective operation of schools must be the aim.

Fundamentally something much greater needs to change than just the way in which pupil exclusions are managed. The increase in the numbers of pupils with behavioural problems is matched almost precisely by the rate of Government inspired decline of support to teachers for such pupils.

School counsellors have all but disappeared from our secondary schools. Teachers have found themselves compelled to switch from meeting pastoral and special needs to complying with the demands of an overloaded national curriculum. Special schools and units which provided valuable support to mainstream schools, are deemed uneconomic and many have been closed. The code of practice on special educational needs is desperately underfunded. And, since 1988, the Government has in effect sanctioned the removal of many support services by cutting centrally-held LEA resources, an action which will be compounded by the Government's White Paper proposals on local management.

In short, Government actions have left schools "swinging in the wind", without consistent, effective support. I am meeting Eric Forth to outline the NUT's proposals on pupil behaviour. My message will be: Show that your commitment matches the concern you express; give teachers the support they deserve.

Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

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