The View From Here - Finland - Spare the rake and spoil the child

Ed Dutton

Was your last class of the day a difficult one, salvaged only by the threat of keeping pupils behind for 10 minutes? Well, spare a thought for teachers in Finland. While teachers in the UK may feel they lack the power to discipline unruly pupils, Finnish teachers can't detain pupils without parental consent, no child can ever be expelled and bags can't be searched no matter how dangerous the suspected contents.

But the situation has reached breaking point and teachers' groups are determined to do something about it. They want more rights to crack down on badly behaved pupils and they are taking action. In June, headteacher association the OAJ and the Finnish Parents' League submitted a joint report to the minister of education arguing for new disciplinary powers, including the right to set pupils to work raking leaves and stacking books.

"Teachers cannot search a pupil's bag even if they suspect there is something dangerous inside," complains Tuomas Kurtilla, executive director of the Finnish Parents' League. "We think they should have this kind of right and a clear message should be sent to teachers and pupils that they do."

Even so, they are still not advocating the right to expel pupils. Instead, they want a family-centred approach. "The parents have to take responsibility for the child, so if he is not behaving the issue is not just the child, but the whole environment where they live," said Mr Kurtilla.

If a pupil does something to warrant a short suspension (which is currently allowed), teachers will be able to have social workers sent to the family home to discover what is behind the pupil's behaviour. The school, parents and social services would then work together to rectify it, the report suggests.

Markku Suortamo of the National Union of Experts in Education, whose members are mainly headteachers, agrees that the time has come for change. "If there is really dangerous behaviour then I should have more power. For example (I should be allowed) to see what is in a pupil's bag."

The report also advocates a kind of physical punishment. "We have to go back to basics," Mr Suortamo said. "At the moment, a pupil gets two hours' detention and has to sit quietly. If they're back doing it a third time, it shows that the punishment is nonsense. The pupil should have to do something."

Currently, no kind of physical labour can be deployed as a school punishment, but the report suggests that raking leaves in the playground or stacking books in the library could be used to deter bad behaviour. Such changes would significantly increase teachers' powers. But with no right to expel pupils, the pressure will still be on to solve problems, rather than shift them on to another school.

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Ed Dutton

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