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Education » Ruth Kelly and leading experts and commentators respond to our six-week series of special reports on our schools
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Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary: We have to listen and learn from schools about what works and what doesn't

Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary: We have to listen and learn from schools about what works and what doesn't

There is a great deal, over the past few years, in which pupils, teachers, parents, governors and all associated with our schools can take pride. Results have improved significantly as has the quality of teaching. Record investment is ensuring school buildings and facilities are being improved across the country.

But despite this progress, there are still plenty of areas where more needs to be done. The Independent on Sunday's series "Inside Britain's Schools" has helped to highlight some of the major challenges that remain.

As Education Secretary - and as a parent - I welcome this focus. It's important that we are honest about these challenges so we can do all we can to help schools to overcome them. And there is no doubt whatsoever, as The Independent on Sunday has shown, that behaviour is of real concern for pupils, teachers and parents.

It's easy when highlighting this genuine problem to lose sight of the fact that schools can often be the most secure and stable environment within their communities. Or that behaviour is good in most schools most of the time.

But I also accept that "most of the time" and "most schools" is not good enough when you see the impact that poor behaviour and disrupted education can have on pupils and their entire future, including on those children who come to school genuinely wanting to learn.

For it's not just the pupils who misbehave that suffer, although it can be difficult to overestimate the damage that a disrupted education can do to their future life chances. It can also be their classmates, their teachers, their school and the wider community. So that's why the Government has made tackling poor behaviour a major priority.

We want a zero tolerance approach to disruptive behaviour, from the low-level back chat and mobile phone texting in the classroom, to bullying or violence. Schools must have clear and consistent boundaries for what is acceptable behaviour. Pupils need to know where the limits are and what the consequences will be.

For the very small number of parents who deliberately ignore such voluntary measures, local authorities can apply for compulsory parenting orders to ensure that they attend parenting programmes and comply with any other requirements set out in the order.

But we also recognise that the actual improvements on the front line are delivered by teachers and heads with the backing of parents. We can provide schools with the powers, training, resources, support and guidance but the work has to be done within the school and at home.

Bringing about the changes we all want to see means that Government has to work with schools, not against them.

I want to ensure we listen and learn from schools about what works and what doesn't. It's why we are setting up a working group of heads and top teachers who have a track record of improving school behaviour. They will advise and work with us to ensure their proven initiatives are spread more widely.

Many schools are, of course, successfully working together. They share expertise and resources to take disruptive pupils out of the classrooms where they are causing problems, to help them to improve their behaviour and, importantly, to intervene with individual help and support before these problems escalate.

We want all secondary schools working together in this way by September 2007.

A real priority is those schools that have been rated as having unsatisfactory behaviour by Ofsted. They will now have deliverable action plans drawn up to overhaul their behaviour policy and practice. We will monitor their progress to ensure they are getting the help they need.

The aim we all share is for each school to have a strong ethos and a policy on behaviour that's respected by the whole school community because it's fair, clear, consistent and rigorously applied.

But, equally, we must reach out to those pupils who, for whatever reason, have given up on learning. We can't give up on them but have to provide an education that inspires them, challenges them and makes them feel good about themselves. That will be helped by our commitment to ensure that the three Rs are mastered by every pupil, providing them with a foundation for learning for the rest of their lives.

Just, however, as no government can legislate to stop bad behaviour in the classroom, no single teacher or school - no matter how determined - can prevent disruption on their own. We need to involve parents more and make sure they face up to their responsibilities to their children and their community. Schools are now beginning to use parenting contracts to support parents in taking the necessary steps to improve their child's behaviour.

Every pupil, parent and teacher has the right to expect a safe, secure and stimulating classroom environment. By working with teachers and parents, we are determined to ensure that learning can flourish in all our schools.

David Bell, HM Chief Inspector: It is not all down to the teachers

When state education was established in the 1870s, besides reading, writing and arithmetic, schools were also responsible for teaching values and attitudes. Today, when there is such a variety of personal values, this task becomes more complex. But it is clear that children learn well in stable environments where boundaries are set.

Creating these conditions is not easy. That is why I welcome the new ministerial task force to examine school behaviour in response to concerns about pupils whose negative attitudes and behaviour disrupt the learning of others.

Schools that motivate and involve pupils so that their behaviour does not get in the way of their learning have common characteristics. They tend to monitor behaviour, attendance, exclusions and detentions, and use the information to inform planning and in-service training. They articulate expectations clearly to staff, pupils and parents, manage pupils' behaviour through effective teaching and provide stability of staffing so that the school has a sense of permanence. They also respond to pupils' concerns about bullying, and involve pupils in supporting each other through mentoring, buddy and prefect systems.

Schools that deal effectively with behaviour provide extra staff support for pupils or ask teachers to mentor "pupils at risk". Government initiatives to introduce learning mentors and learning support units have helped many schools, particularly those serving underprivileged areas. However, schools without such additional resources are working just as hard to keep pupils in school and improve their ability to learn.

The new task force will need to recognise that some schools face higher levels of challenge than others, while all schools have a minority of parents who are quicker to listen to their child than to the school. It is important that we don't shift all the weight of expectation on to the shoulders of teachers.


The culture of classroom indiscipline and casual violence has been identified as an urgent priority by teachers, inspectors and politicians alike. Here six of education's leading figures tell us what is going wrong - and how it should be tackled.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector who led the government inquiry on the future of GCSEs and A-levels

The biggest problem is low-level misbehaviour rather than anything extreme. The persistent bad language, the snide comment as you walk down the corridor. In individual lessons it can cause almost continual disruption. It affects the majority of pupils who want to learn and it acts as a drain on the energy of the teacher. Probably the biggest requirement is for a change in the curriculum. For many children, they're looking for some link between what they're being taught and how it can be applied in life. When kids are engaged they're not inclined to misbehave.

David Cameron, Conservative education spokesman

I want to see the following decisive action: the unambiguous right for heads to expel unruly pupils; the abolition of appeals panels; the right to make home-school contracts binding. As well as this change in approach to the autonomy of schools, we need a change in culture. Listen to children threatened with punishment who say "I know my rights", and listen to teachers too frightened to deal with poor behaviour, and it is clear what is happening. We're starting to treat teachers like children, and children like adults.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

We have had a lot of discussion about discipline and behaviour. But schools are trying to operate at the 1950s standard of behaviour when the rest of society has very different standards, and very different views on how to bring up children. It's always going to be an uphill struggle for schools trying to restore respect in a society that has largely lost respect. Far more important than any measures the Government might take is the context in which children come to the school. It is the norms of society that need questioning.

Michele Elliott, director of Kidscape, the anti-bullying charity

Many "wild" children who are bullying, tearing up neighbourhoods, setting fire or torturing people and posting it on the web have no boundaries. They push until they damage themselves and others. If we are willing to demand zero tolerance of bad behaviour in schools and neighbourhoods, then we may be able to stop the rot. That also means standing up to the parents who excuse their little darlings. It's all about their rights, with nothing about their responsibilities. We are doing these children and their families a disservice by allowing them to thumb their noses at everyone.

Sir Alan Steer, headteacher of Seven Kings High School in Ilford, east London, and chairman of the Government's new task force on school discipline

We shouldn't demonise pupils. If we start giving the message that we hate our young, what message are we going to get back from them? One thing we do here is to have as many lessons as possible in the morning - their concentration span is better then. The key to anorderly school is good teaching - giving pupils something that interests them. If you teach children in depressing dirty surroundings, they're going to get depressed about their learning, too.

Marie Stubbs, the headteacher who turned around struggling St George's School in Maida Vale, west London. Her story was turned into an ITV drama starring Julie Walters

The biggest issue I see in struggling schools is that they turn inwards and lose perspective about how poor their offer to the children is. They also get captured in a view that what they're doing is much more difficult than what anybody else is doing. Somebody has got to break through that. What they're doing is not more difficult. It's a matter of exciting the teachers. There's an element of staff development and training required - from top-quality people.