The Government's discipline tsar reveals how he keeps pupils in line

Sir Alan Steer is about to report to Tony Blair on how to curb bad behaviour in schools. In an exclusive interview, he tells Richard Garner how to keep order in the classroom
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Alan was knighted last year and has been a leading light in several of Tony Blair's educational initiatives, but he believes it is important he should still take his place on the rota of senior staff checking pupils in each morning.

"It's important," he says. "If they arrive in a disciplined manner, it sets the tone for the day. We want them to show good manners towards each other from the start. It's also a good way of tapping into their feelings. You can get a good idea of what's going on in the school just by listening."

Later in the day, he stands watching pupils filing in for school lunches. One day the younger pupils will be allowed to go first, the next the older and bigger pupils. "It's a way of showing that we don't just have the bigger pupils pushing to the front," he says, "It's respect for everyone."

That respect has been fostered throughout the 1,350-pupil school, and it has led Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, to say in its most recent report on the school: "Relationships are excellent. Pupils are mature and show far greater tolerance and care for others than is often evident in society at large. Relationships among the different racial groups in the school are outstandingly friendly."

This praise must have been on Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's mind when, worried about inspectors' reports of a growing amount of low-level disruption in schools, she appointed Sir Alan to chair a new task force on discipline immediately after the election.

But she may be surprised by some of the things he says when his task force reports later this month. The Education Secretary has set great store on schools having "zero tolerance" of poor behaviour. Sir Alan, however, has made it clear that "zero tolerance" is not a phrase he is comfortable with.

"I know that we must aim for high standards of discipline - no question," he says, "but what does this word 'zero' mean? If being a teacher is something like being in place of a parent during the school day, can a parent say to a child, 'I shall have zero tolerance of your poor behaviour - one bad word and out you go'? I don't think so. If you get a child who is misbehaving, you don't just say, 'Get out and don't come back.'"

Sir Alan is a firm believer in the idea that respect for pupils pays off in the long run - and that they will repay that respect as long as you ensure they have a good learning environment, quality teaching and a stimulating curriculum.

"There was a time when we seemed to put children in the most dirty and drab surroundings and expected them to get on with it," he says. "You can't do that and expect them to enjoy learning. Thankfully, the level of investment the Government is now ploughing into education and rebuilding its infrastructure means that we are beginning to put those times behind us.

"I don't want to come across as a Mr Softie, but you shouldn't demonise the kids either. This obsession with being tough won't work on its own."

Sir Alan believes that there is nothing wrong with being tough, but that you need to be intelligent, and have a bit of love thrown into the mix, too. He does not fit the mould of a "superhead". Normally, a superhead would be sent into a failing school to turn it round in two to three years and move on to the next challenge. Sir Alan has been at Seven Kings for 20 years and, at the age of 57, is likely to stay until retirement.

"I like the idea that a school can make a real impact on the local community and that you're not just some kind of Flash Harry who comes in with ideas and then moves on," he says.

The school he inherited was a social school, he explains. "The kids were happy and really well cared for, but the focus on learning wasn't really strong."

In those days, the school's composition was very different. A school photograph from the 1950s shows a sea of white faces. Now about 75 per cent of pupils have English as a second language because of the increase in the size of the local Asian community.

He says of the school he inherited: "It was like much of education in the 1980s. The middle classes patronised working-class kids. Shakespeare would be all right for those who came from Woodford (a nearby leafier suburb) but not for those we have around here."

That has all changed. Now 93 per cent of pupils obtain at least five A* to C grade passes at GCSE.

Seven Kings competes with two selective grammar schools in the neighbourhood, which means that some of its brightest pupils can be creamed off. However, its standards are not far short of those at the two grammar schools. Indeed, it performs better than a substantial number of the 164 remaining grammar schools in the country, so it manages to attract a lot of bright children and do well by them. That gives Sir Alan great satisfaction. "Comprehensive is a really good word in my vocabulary," he says. "We're a local community school providing for the local community."

What will his task force - made up of 15 heads and teachers - suggest? Sir Alan is anxious to dispel any idea that they will come up with a detailed plan for tackling disruption in schools in just 12 weeks. "It will be a question of sharing good practice, of seeing what works, of seeing what the Elton committee [an earlier inquiry into school discipline at the end of the 1980s] recommended and whether it has been put into place."

So, expect head teachers to be asked to take their place at the school gates to ensure that pupils arrive in an orderly fashion. Expect them, too, to be urged to place signs in the corridors explaining why it is a good idea that the pupils keep to the left. The idea is that, if they don't, they're likely to get hurt as they barge into those coming in the opposite direction.

Expect his report to emphasise the need for quality surroundings for learning. Sir Alan calls the carpets in the corridors "learning and behaviour carpets" because of the improvements they bring.

It's not rocket science, he says. But it appears to work.

'On average, there is an assault on a classroom teacher once every seven minutes'

The last full investigation into discipline in state schools, completed by Lord Elton in 1989, concluded that 2 per cent of the country's 400,000 teachers had faced physical aggression from their pupils.

Teachers' leaders argue that the proportion has increased since then. According to research from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, there is an assault on a classroom teacher once every seven minutes, on average. However, when David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, revealed in his annual report in February 2005 that constant low-level disruption in class was wearing out teachers' nerves, political action followed. A report by Ofsted, the standards watchdog, showed that the number of schools with a good record in discipline had fallen from 76 per cent to 68 per cent between 1996 and 2004.

After the election, Tony Blair set up the discipline task force chaired by Sir Alan Steer. The PM asked Sir Alan to look at whether parents should be compelled to spend more time at home with pupils who had been suspended. The signs are, however, that Sir Alan's report will concentrate more on spreading good practice along the lines suggested in a report by the National Union of Teachers last month. The NUT said there should be a national charter on discipline, upon which schools could draw. Sir Alan is most unlikely to get drawn into the game of criticising parents or pupils. RG