Talking beats confiscating

8 July 2010
The Guardian
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The new teachers’ powers are welcome, but it’ll take more to instil discipline in our classrooms

My pupils seem to carry an increasing number of devices that clink, chime, crash, and even fart of their own accord in my classroom. If the offending gadget makes a particularly loud sound, the intrusion can ruin a peaceful, purposeful lesson.

In the outer London comprehensive where I teach, as is the case in many schools, such gadgets are banned and the pupils know that the school rule is that they will be confiscated. It’s a rule that, I have to say, is more honoured in the breach than the observance.

The reality is that it’s very difficult to extract hundreds of pounds’ worth of kit from a child who is determined to keep it; the protestations can be extremely strong and emotional, with children claiming that their fundamental rights are being infringed as you start to root around their buzzing bag. And they’re not wrong: teachers have no legal right to confiscate such equipment from pupils at the moment. So most teachers like me will welcome the coalition’s plans, announced yesterday, to strengthen our powers to take away items that might be disrupting lessons and life in school generally.

They will also welcome the accompanying legislation, which will toughen teachers’ right to intervene when they see pupils fighting. At the moment, I stand back when I see two pupils scrapping because I know that if I so much as touch a child I could be hauled up before a disciplinary committee or, worse, be arrested for assault. The government wants to grant anonymity to teachers who are facing this sort of allegation, and that is also welcome: 95% of pupil allegations turn out, when scrutinised, to be groundless.

However, these policies are only sticking plasters, and headteachers need to implement the legislation with tact and sensitivity to keep parents on board. In particular, I can see real problems with the intention to give headteachers the power to detain a pupil without 24 hours’ notice. I know of a number of cases where parents have had important appointments, and have been furious to find their child in detention without any notice; in those cases, I’ve acceded to the parents’ wishes to collect their child at the end of the school day because it would ruin their plans. I can foresee problems if overzealous heads decide to impose this new law insensitively.

When schools, families and local communities work together, discipline improves. With many badly behaved pupils I’ve come across, it has been as much about educating the parents as the pupil. The success of one particular programme, Save the Children’s Families and Schools Together (Fast), suggests that the behaviour of disturbed, disadvantaged children does improve when parents are properly involved.

Under this scheme, parents, teachers and important community members come together to together discuss things that may be troubling them, from literacy problems to housing issues, and parents are encouraged to start eating meals and playing games with children and to talk to them more often. Fast has worked, and could benefit both affluent and deprived families because it has enabled parents to take control of their own families’ lives.

Sadly, the government isn’t interested in expanding such programmes, but rather seems intent on shutting them down and isolating parents, leaving the pushier element to set up “free” schools if they are dissatisfied with their children’s progress. That will not help the schools in socially deprived areas that already exclude large numbers of pupils for bad behaviour.

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