Alan Smithers: Make litter an election issue

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The Independent Online

If Jamie Oliver's school-meals' revolution gets off the ground, it will have the welcome side-effect of reducing the litter associated with junk food. But this alone will not rid us of the menace. Recently, I have had the opportunity of visiting schools up and down the country. What I saw was mainly very impressive. But the litter was terrible. Around every corner there were sweet papers, sandwich wrappers, crisp packets, drinks cans and plastic bags carelessly discarded. Not far away there was usually a pristine, near-empty bin.

When I casually remarked on this to the headteachers showing me round, most admitted they did not know what to do about it. One shrugged and said he had more important things to worry about. But quite a few resorted to picking up the stuff as we walked along - giving a whole new meaning to school leadership. One school thought it had hit on a way of tackling litter at source by making clearing it up a punishment duty, but this only seemed to encourage the other pupils to throw down more. In another school, we heard that making children pick up their own litter infringed health and safety law.

But the mess is not down to a miscreant few. At my previous university, I had the privilege of an office that looked out over a beautiful square that was wonderfully kept by the gardeners. When the sun came out, it was a delight to see the students relaxing on the grass. But, invariably, they left behind an ugly coating of plastic glasses and other debris. Seemingly, it just did not occur to them - some of the brightest minds in the country - that the simple act of removing their litter to the bins would leave the gardens looking good and mean that the poor gardeners did not have to spend hours clearing up after them.

Both main political parties are putting pupil behaviour at the top of their education agendas in the coming election. Labour has promised "zero tolerance" of bad behaviour. Ofsted will inspect, parenting orders backed by fines will be issued and learning support units will help school remove disruptive pupils early on. The Conservatives propose giving more power to teachers to enforce discipline, abolish appeals panels for excluded children, fund schools to install CCTV, drug-test pupils and search them with metal detectors.

But for all the evident concern and powerful rhetoric, their programmes seem unconvincing. Designed to appear tough on bad behaviour, they ignore its causes. Like the much touted on-the-spot fines for litter-louts, they are likely to be ineffectual.

Here, then, is a challenge for those who would be our next government. Potentially, the causes of litter are easy to deal with - teach people not to throw down their rubbish in the first place. Rather than blustering about bad behaviour in general, let our politicians come up with a clear strategy for achieving the specific goal of teaching children to put their litter in bins. With such a straightforward objective, it would be obvious what worked. First our schools, then our cities and countryside would become less strewn.

But there would be wider benefits. If ways could be found of changing behaviour in this particular respect, the methods might generalise to tackling the more outrageous manifestations that are causing so much concern and leading to many teachers quitting our schools. Rather than policies aimed at containment and control, we might be able to get closer to the roots.

Litter is sometimes regarded as too trivial to bother about, and doing so invites scorn. Margaret Thatcher scurrying about in St James's Park picking up paper comes to mind, but that was risible because the paper was scattered for her in the first place. Too many of the aspirations of our politicians for education are just too grand. Money is sometimes poured in with little hope of being able to tell whether it really is doing any good.

On litter, there would be a precise objective and the outcome would be obvious. Succeed, and who knows what other of society's ills might be curable.

The writer is the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham