Leading article: Blair's phony electoral fight

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The Independent Online

Election fever is upon us, and with it has come a whole series of measures from both Labour and the Conservatives about how to improve discipline in schools. Both parties start from the same premise: that discipline has become a real problem and needs fairly extreme measures to sort it out. Labour is concentrating on the use of knives by pupils and would give heads the right to search young people. Labour would also insist that schools share out their responsibility to take excluded pupils - even the top grammar schools.

Election fever is upon us, and with it has come a whole series of measures from both Labour and the Conservatives about how to improve discipline in schools. Both parties start from the same premise: that discipline has become a real problem and needs fairly extreme measures to sort it out. Labour is concentrating on the use of knives by pupils and would give heads the right to search young people. Labour would also insist that schools share out their responsibility to take excluded pupils - even the top grammar schools.

On the first point, there is a real fear on the part of teachers that they could be placing themselves in danger by conducting searches. On the second point - schools sharing out the problem children - this may appear to be a remarkably egalitarian measure, but it would have to be handled carefully. It would be pointless to place a pupil of low ability into a high performing school where he or she would be lost in class and - likely as not - play truant or become disruptive again.

The Conservative proposal is almost the mirror opposite. The Tories want to increase the number of places in pupil referral units - or "turnaround schools" as they are now to be known - from 4,000 to 24,000. They are also pledging not to force any school to take in excluded pupils. The problem with that is that it is likely to leave thousands of youngsters sentenced to a borstal-like setting for the rest of their educational lives. There must be doubts over how many schools would take excluded pupils if they did not have to.

That is not to say that discipline is not a problem in schools. Some of the proposals are welcome - particularly the Conservatives' pledge to insist on a teacher's anonymity in abuse allegations until the Crown Prosecution Service has started legal proceedings and Labour's similar pledge to take steps to maintain a teacher's anonymity. The problem is that these pledges will bring desired headlines into the fevered atmosphere of an impending election but will do little to solve the problems they purport to tackle. Better solutions aimed at improving discipline in schools are more likely to emerge from round-table discussions with those at the chalkface - both heads and teachers - rather than in the pages of election manifestos. Politicians should take time to foster those discussions.

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