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What a way to deal with discipline

Haste rather than thought seems to be behind the latest legislation, argues Carl Parsons.

The bulk of the teaching profession surely must be delighted to learn that the nine clauses in the Education Bill concerning discipline will pass into law and mean fewer behaviour problems.

It is pleasing that the three major parties had no disagreement over these elements of the Bill. And so reassuring that consultation was kept to a minimum. Democracies can sometimes go too far in letting everyone have their say.

The Lords sorted out some fine points of drafting. Apparently, pupils who have been permanently excluded twice are not to be called "disqualified persons". There has also been a little bit of rethinking about parent contracts.

It is good to have an administration which puts together its legislation at breakneck speed. If you get it wrong first time, you can just prepare another Bill. You can't expect to get it all right first time, and amendments which amend amendments don't matter too much, even if they do look a little silly.

We also do not want to be slowed down by having pilot projects or experiments and then contracting some higher education institution to do a rip-off evaluation of them.

Busy people reaching common-sense decisions that do not involve spending any more money are what we want. It's what we have had. And it is probably what we will continue to have - it's getting to be what we're used to, after all.

Teachers and other education professionals are just busying themselves with their jobs, one hopes. They don't want to concern themselves with policy and strategy, even if they do know much more about what is actually happening with our children and youth. You can't let detailed practical and professional knowledge interfere with the act or the art of political decision-making.

So let's see what we've got. First, a great idea that has been retained, despite irksome representations from the children's lobby, is the 45-day fixed-term exclusion. Labour has an even better idea that it should be a whole school term of fixed-term exclusion linked to an individual pupil plan.

Thank you, Peter Kilfoyle, for topping the Conservatives' already brilliant idea. Yes, and let's make Pupil Referral Units focus clearly on reintegrating "problem" children because they probably do not realise that is their role at the moment.

Second, we are to have contracts with parents. Yes, that will help keep these young people in line. I suppose it may also just give schools further grounds to exclude, saying "You broke the contract . . ."

Third, schools can keep pupils in detention without parents' permission. Conciliation and working collaboratively with parents must be for softies. You would have thought that might have been a good idea.

Fourth, schools should publish their discipline policies. Don't many do that already? You might have thought that support and resources to implement the policies effectively would be needed. Still, money is short.

Fifth, LEAs must publish plans for supporting schools which have disruptive pupils. Don't many do that, too? One hopes that is not like reading the diet chart in the hope of slimming. There must be more to it than that.

Sixth, if a child has been permanently excluded from two schools he or she has lost the right to choose a new school that has places. There can't be many of those. Those kids must have real problems. I suppose it may stop some schools receiving too many of these children to be able to cope, like that school in, oh, where was it?

Seven and eight are about increasing schools' representation at appeals meetings and appeals committees taking account of other pupils and staff at the school. Well, it's not going to reduce the numbers of pupils excluded. It will stop recurrence of those two or three instances that made the national press. I suppose we need a law to cater for even such small numbers. I thought parents had a pretty tough time with appeals as it was.

Finally, pupil referral units must have management committees. I'm not sure why they did not think of that in the 1993 Act, which established the units. There must have been a good reason. It can't have been legislative incompetence.

The first 1997 Education Act may look a bit of a mauled ragbag, but it is trying to put right a lot of things that weren't put quite right by the 1996 Act, which tried to put right some of the things the 1993 Act had not been successful in putting right. It is gratifying that our members of Parliament can quite simply get on with the job and sort out a legislative framework to solve the problems.

They obviously know much better than I and many others who have done research in the field for years because we really did not think that the solutions proposed would solve the problem. We just thought it would shift the discipline problem to another place. Or it could just delay it to come out in anti-social and criminal behaviour later. Some of us had thought that things such as exclusion got in the way of developing citizens, but they must know. Some have even said this is fundamentally flawed legislation beyond repair. Others say the treatment that results for the young people who are excluded amounts to a professional and political shame.

It is likely that many elements of the Bill will not come into force until September 1998, so that gives some time for thinking through the details of these sections of the Act. At the recent legislation rate, it actually gives the Government time to put through two more Education Bills. Heaven forbid that we should slow down enough to have time to think.

Strange how few teachers know about the elements of the Act. Many do not want these troubled and troublesome young people in their classrooms. I'm not sure that they approve of, or even know, quite what does happen to youngsters who are permanently excluded. Still, education law has to be made; on the hoof, seat of the pants, back of an envelope, done, sorted. That's the way we do things.

Dr Carl Parsons, of Canterbury Christ Church College, recently conducted a national survey of local authorities which demonstrated a sharp upward trend in permanent exclusions.

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