Tough talk on school discipline
- 10 July 2010
- From the section Education & Family
During the election, the Conservatives' repeated pledge to "toughen" school discipline hit a popular chord.
So did the government live up to its promises when it announced new disciplinary powers for teachers in England this week?
On the day of the announcement, I tested the reaction at an inner-city boys' comprehensive.
It has a higher than average proportion of pupils with special needs, on free school meals, and with English as an additional language.
But the school achieved an "outstanding" grade for behaviour in its last Ofsted report.
It did not take long in the corridors to see that, while the students were naturally boisterous, discipline was good.
This is achieved by setting clear boundaries, and penalties, and by enforcing them.
No student is allowed to leave the school at the end of the day unless their tie is done up and their uniform tidy. Enforcement is vigilant but polite.
Students told me they welcomed the uniform code and the clear rules on what can be brought into the school, saying it helps prevent gang influence getting inside the school gates.
So, while they might resent some of the restrictions on hairstyles, they accept the ban on cropped-hair as it prevents students touting gang allegiances by having area post-codes shaved onto their head.
So what did the school's managers make of the government changes? The truth is that while they found little to disagree with, they were distinctly underwhelmed.
Their view was that they already had all the powers necessary to search pupils, impose detention, or restrain pupils.
The students I spoke to, from Year 8 to Year 11, regarded the government's new measures as mostly reasonable, but did not like the ending of the 24-hour notice for out-of-hours detentions.
As they pointed out, parents would worry if their sons were late home without prior explanation.
They were also unhappy that the government is adding mobile phones to the list of objects teachers can legitimately search for and confiscate.
They argued that mobiles are part of daily life, needed for contacting parents, and should be allowed into school, providing they are switched off during lessons.
So, if this school felt little need of them, how essential are these reforms?
According to the latest Ofsted annual report, 92% of schools are "good" or "outstanding" for behaviour.
Even amongst secondary schools, where behaviour is the least good, 80% were "good" or better.
Of the rest, 19% were deemed "satisfactory" and only 1% were judged "inadequate".
So either Ofsted inspectors have gone soft on discipline, or the problem is not quite as bad as the politicians believe.
As the head teacher told me, regretfully rather than angrily, "the politicians need to make a noise about behaviour, but actually it works pretty well in schools".
In practice then, what difference will the new measures make?
The extended search powers are actually not as new as they might appear.
The power to search pupils for alcohol, drugs, and stolen items was enacted by the last government in 2009 and was already due to come into force from September.
The further list of items added by ministers this week, ranging from mobile phones to fireworks, might reassure schools about legal challenges, but most felt they already had the necessary powers.
The promise of "shorter and clearer" guidance on the use of force to restrain pupils also left many unimpressed.
While they welcomed the intention, teachers' leaders say the real problem is not the law, nor even the existing guidance, but the fact that many governing bodies and local authorities insist on "no touch" policies for teachers.
This means that even when teachers are within the law on physical restraint, they risk disciplinary action for breaking the local policy.
So, while local authority policies need to catch up with the law, the government's promised update of guidance, that was only revised last year, may make little difference.
One broadly welcomed proposal is the granting of anonymity to teachers who face allegations of abuse by pupils.
But many feel this misses the real problem, which is that the police will still record so-called "soft information" and, even when no charge is brought, this can still reappear on teachers' Criminal Records Bureau checks.
Teachers' leaders say statutory guidance on the use of such information would be the most effective measure.
Similar concerns arise over preventing pupil exclusions from being overturned by independent appeals panels.
Ministers have not yet made firm proposals on this, perhaps because they know it could leave individual schools open to legal challenge under the Human Rights Act.
Moreover, as statistics collected by the NASUWT union have shown, exclusions are just as likely to be overturned by school governors as by independent panels.
And this could be a sledgehammer to crack a nut as statistics show that of over 8,000 exclusions in 2007-8, independent appeals panels reinstated pupils in just 60 cases.
As with many of these measures, while tough talk may play well with voters, the practical effects may not be so marked.
Mike Baker is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.