Looking for trouble

If you want to know how poor behaviour affects pupils and schools, take a look at the Department for Education and Skills’ own figures. In 2003-4, 1.3 million pupil days were lost due to fixed-term exclusions, and nearly 10,000 children were permanently excluded from their school. And, according to education watchdog Ofsted, behaviour in more than one in 20 schools is unsatisfactory.

Earlier this year, the government commissioned a group of senior educationalists led by headteacher Sir Alan Steer, to look at the problem of school behaviour and discipline and report back with recommendations (see What’s in and what’s out). The hope was that these recommendations – which were warmly welcomed – would have a big influence on the content of the schools white paper, published just days later.

In the event, however, the white paper was met with a barrage of criticism for its focus on encouraging schools to become self-governing trusts controlling their own admissions policies.

The fear is that this will mean many children – and particularly “hard to place” children – will continue to be denied access to good schools. The National Union of Teachers has described the proposal as “extraordinarily wrong-headed”, while the Local Government Association warns it will result in schools choosing pupils, not pupils choosing schools.

The specific proposals on discipline have also been criticised as seizing on the more punitive aspects of the Practitioners’ Group’s recommendations, such as allowing schools to apply for parenting orders and introducing a new offence for parents of failing to supervise children during the first five days of any exclusion.

The schools with the biggest discipline problems are usually those with disproportionately high number of children entitled to free school meals. Despite government claims that the white paper will tackle some of the entrenched inequalities within the current education system, there are widespread concerns that in fact it will result in the very families who most need support being even more likely to be refused places for their children at the school of their choice and becoming the target of the new sanctions.

Chris Gravell, policy officer for the Advisory Centre for Education, points out that unless the government grasps the nettle of admissions, the best schools will find ways to avoid taking in more difficult pupils. “If schools want good league table results and well-behaved pupils, they are probably going to go for a more middle class intake and a more homogenous group of children,” she says.

“The white paper sets up market forces and punitive measures against pupils and parents as cure-alls for problem schools, which seem to conflict with the positive social justice initiatives of Every Child Matters.”

The tension between the Every Child Matters agenda and the white paper also concerns Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the National Family and Parenting Institute – particularly in the light of the government’s determination to remove power from local authorities and make them commissioners rather than providers of education services.

MacLeod highlights the “anomaly” of placing a duty on local authorities to consult schools when developing their local children’s plans but not requiring schools to take account of these plans when devising their school policies. “That can very easily mean that vulnerable children get left out,” she says.

The NFPI is worried that the government is encouraging a “blame game” between parents and teachers. These concerns are echoed by NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott who points out that members do not want to be in the position of being “judge and jury” against parents. “Schools have to work in co-operation with parents. If teachers have to establish punitive measures against them, that will not help that relationship,” he explains.  

Jodie Reed, senior research fellow at the think-tank the IPPR, believes the government’s proposals reflect a concern about the impact of poor discipline on all pupils – not just the perpetrators – and particularly welcomes the clarification of the law on teachers restraining pupils.

Where she thinks the government has missed an opportunity, however, is in the areas of teacher training and teachers’ continuing professional development. “I’d like to see the government getting behind a shift towards enabling teachers to understand the causes of challenging behaviour better,” she says. She cites the pedagogic model in the Nordic countries as a possible route that could be explored.

With the white paper consultation period closing on 1 December, it is to be hoped that the government will listen to the these concerns – not to mention their own backbench MPs – and amend the proposals before a bill is published. Gravell, however, is not optimistic: “I don’t know if there is the political will to think about this in terms of social justice rather than letting schools go their own way.”

What’s in and what’s out
Four days before the schools white paper was published, the Practitioners’ Group on School Behaviour and Discipline made 72 policy recommendations on school discipline. While some made it into the white paper, others did not….

Key recommendations included:

  • The introduction of a single piece of legislation making clear the overall right of teachers to discipline – and restrain – pupils.
  • A new duty on local authorities to provide full-time education for excluded pupils from the sixth day of their exclusion instead of the sixteenth day.
  • A new duty on parents to ensure their children are properly supervised during the first five days of an exclusion.
  • The extension of parenting contracts, so schools can use them prior to a pupil being excluded.
  • A new legal power for schools to apply for a parenting order, and the option to use them in cases of serious misbehaviour where the pupil has not been excluded.
  • Mandatory reintegration interviews for parents after exclusions.
  • Stronger guidance on the proper recording of exclusions.
  • An emphasis on the need for headteachers and governors on exclusion appeals panels to be from the same phase of education as the excluding schools.
  • A requirement on exclusion appeal panels not to vary a governing body’s decision where they accept a pupil has committed the offence in question.

    Key recommendations the government is still considering:

  • A National Behaviour Charter of responsibilities and rights applicable to all members of the school community.
  • The establishment in all schools of a pupil parent support worker or other staffing structure to deliver adequate pupil and parent support.

    Key recommendations left out :

  • A review of standards for initial teacher training to require successful trainees to demonstrate an understanding of how to promote positive behaviour and develop pupils’ social, emotional and behavioural skills.
  • A reduction of the bureaucracy associated with the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice.
  • Research into what happens to pupils excluded from Pupil Referral Units or special schools.
  • An urgent review of the funding or specialist support that follows pupils moving to mainstream establishments from independent specialist provision.
  • The same right to legal representation for headteachers in the exclusion appeals process as that afforded to governors, parents and carers.
  • Clarification for schools on awarding payments for posts with significant additional pastoral duties.
  • Improved access for all secondary school pupils to a Learning Support Unit.

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