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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 23:12 GMT 00:12 UK
Ministers' naughty pupils problem
Mike Baker graphic

This week's "starter for 10" is: '"What is the biggest obstacle to implementing the government's education policies in schools?"

There are many possible answers: lack of money, the shortage of teachers, or the active opposition of the teacher unions to the government's latest wheeze.

This week, though, the Education Secretary Estelle Morris came out with her own answer. It was an unusual one for a politician. Indeed it drew on her own background as a teacher in inner city schools.

The biggest obstacle to implementing education policy was, she insisted, "two badly behaved children in a classroom".

It was an earthy, chalk-face sort of answer and one that would probably win a cheer in most school staff-rooms.

classroom
Managing bad behaviour is very challenging
Teachers know that the best lesson plans and the most enlightened curriculum count for nothing if they have to spend most of their time calming or disciplining a couple of disruptive pupils.

One of the main reasons behind the difficulties in teacher recruitment and retention is classroom indiscipline. This week's teacher vacancy figures suggested the government is just about keeping the lid on the problem but is far from solving the teacher shortage.

All this explains why the issue of classroom behaviour has risen to the top of the government's agenda. The spin-doctors' current favourite method for highlighting issues is "the summit".

We have had crime summits and drug summits. This week it was the turn of the "behaviour summit".

Political imperative

In coming weeks, we can expect to see government campaigns to highlight ideas such as: putting police officers into schools, conducting truancy "sweeps", and devising a harder-hitting drugs education campaign.

Estelle Morris is not working alone on this. There is clearly a Downing Street inspired, government-wide, campaign to tackle crime. Both the prime minister and the Home Secretary David Blunkett have made it clear that reducing crime, and the fear of crime, are political imperatives.

Recent events in France, where the political far-right ousted the Socialists in the first round of the presidential elections, have highlighted the dangers for left-of-centre parties if they neglect issues like crime.

Ministers cannot impose a discipline policy on individual schools

Indeed, the former Labour minister, Peter Mandelson, has said he believes one reason why the National Front in Britain will not emulate Le Pen's electoral success is because of the vigour with which Mr Blunkett has tackled the crime issue.

But what can the education secretary really do about these things? Are there any levers for her to pull?

The short answer is: no. The government has unprecedented powers of control over the curriculum and testing in schools. It can, as we have seen with the Literacy Hour, issue instructions telling teachers how to plan their lessons, almost down to the last five minutes.

Behaviour summit

But ministers cannot impose a discipline policy on individual schools. They cannot determine punishments for miscreants.

In this respect, ministerial office is little more than what the Americans call "the bully pulpit". You can urge, cajole and berate others; but in the end you cannot directly effect change.

That is why the Department for Education staged this week's "behaviour summit". It was, of course, largely a PR stunt.

The idea was partly to be seen to be doing something. That is not, perhaps, as cynical as it sounds. If you wish to stimulate others to change, you must first get your message across.

Moreover the summit did give teachers, youth workers, and young people a chance to say what they think works. One inner-city head teacher described the many systems she had in place at her school for tackling disaffection.

Specialists

These included learning mentors, a team looking specifically at attendance, a teacher focussing on ethnic minority achievement, and a "senior management patrol" which could swoop, SAS-style, on trouble-makers and remove them from the classroom.

The summit also heard from a learning mentor at another inner-city school. His background was in youth work, not teaching. He attributed much of his success to the fact that he knew what was going on in the school's local community.

These two examples underlined an important lesson: dealing with disaffection and indiscipline cannot, and should not, be left to the classroom teacher. They have enough to do. Schools need specialist, dedicated staff - not necessarily trained teachers - to take on this role.

That means they need more money. The government's focus on this issue suggests Gordon Brown will find cash for tackling misbehaviour in schools in his comprehensive spending review.

In the past, teachers in Britain made a rod for their own back by extending their role beyond pedagogy to pastoral care.

While the latter may be an important, but secondary, role for schools, it will not work if the burden is loaded upon mainstream teachers. Classroom teachers must be free to teach.

The government has talked a lot about the role of classroom assistants in reducing the workload of teachers.

If learning mentors, support workers, education welfare officers, and classroom assistants can take on the role of dealing with disaffected pupils this could have a double benefit: improving behaviour and helping overcome the teacher shortage.


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

18 Apr 02 | Education
25 Apr 02 | Education
26 Mar 02 | Education
25 Feb 02 | Education
14 Feb 03 | Education
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