Top marks for good behaviour

Far from despairing about discipline, we should celebrate the huge drop in school exclusions, the previous government's 'behaviour tsar' tells Richard Garner

Talk of a stern clampdown on school discipline by Education Secretary Michael Gove has raised the spectre of chaos ruling in our our classrooms – not for the first time.

The former government behaviour "guru" (although he dislikes the epithet) Sir Alan Steer has an alternative viewpoint. He believes there is a good news story to be told – particularly about behaviour in secondary schools. "I'd like to ask: 'Minister, what is a good news story?'" he says, almost in exasperation, as he contemplates the latest exclusion figures.

For two years they have been falling – quite substantially. Last year permanent exclusions fell by 19 per cent and this year they are down to just over 5,000 a year – a further drop of more than 10 per cent. Yet the headlines are all about how 900 children a day are being excluded for assaulting or abusing another child or adult at their school.

The comments from Schools minister Nick Gibb accompanying the statistics are also all about how the problem must, and is, being tackled.

"Four or five years ago when the number was around 10,000 a year, to have it down to about 5,000 would have been unthinkable," Sir Alan says. "It is not because heads can't exclude [as has been suggested by ministers]," he goes on. "That is totally untrue and it is an absolute myth. What we have seen is the success of the policies that have been implemented over the past 10 to 15 years – but because that story happened before this Coalition was elected we don't hear about that."

Sir Alan was the Government's behaviour "tsar" for five years from 2005 to 2010. Just over a year after leaving office, he now feels able to give vent to his feelings about how the new administration is tackling the issue.

He would acknowledge that some of the successes predate his appointment (and, indeed, are just down to common sense rather than Government initiatives). They are also down to firm leadership in schools coupled with quality teaching.

He himself once told me that he believed it was better to resort to a "right royal rollicking" for a first offender rather than rush to exclusion when he was in post as a headteacher." It shows that you care," he says.

He also acknowledges that he was under pressure to recommend new crackdowns on behaviour during the years he was churning out reports on how school discipline should be tackled. "I was always hearing the phrase: 'will you be tough enough?'," he says. "Yet evidence from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, is that behaviour in most schools is good and getting better – although you may not think that from reading certain tabloids. Really, though, if you're going to say the national inspection service is rubbish you have to have more evidence than 'I know that because I met a man in the Pig and Whistle, and he said it was getting worse'."

During his time as education tsar, he tried to get the message across that "respect" was key to improving discipline – and that meant respect of the pupils by the teachers just as much as respect of the teachers by the pupils.

Respect, to his mind, meant giving them good-quality teaching that made them want to learn. "After all, if you go back to your own schooldays, wasn't it the teacher who didn't have command of his subject in whose lessons you played up the most?" he asks.

He is therefore critical of the latest government initiatives to try and combat poor discipline. One centres around giving teachers the power to use "reasonable force" in trying to restrain unruly pupils. It is, he says, a concept that was pushed under the previous government and its first inclusion in the statute books even predates Labour – although Coalition ministers would argue that teachers are still sceptical about how much force they can use.

The other is the plan to allow schools to use the power of same-day detention. "I can't think of anything more worrying to parents than if you're expecting your child home at a certain time and an hour or so later they haven't turned up," he says. "It's ridiculous."

Sir Michael Willshaw, headteacher of the highly successful Mossbourne Academy in east London – who was the architect of this plan in that its use at his school impressed Education Secretary Michael Gove, has said he would always alert the parents to the fact he had taken this step. Sir Alan, though, is worried that the new advice to heads does not stress this point.

He is not complacent about discipline, though, believing there are crucial issues – even "scandals" to use his words – that need to be tackled urgently. One is the type of education children receive once they have been excluded from school. In too many instances, he says, it is still the case that a child excluded from school may only receive home tuition for about one hour a week.

"Where are they going to be for the rest of the time?" he says. "They're probably not the sort that would be found in the local library. They will be driven into crime, drugs, substance abuse or alcohol participation." Or rioting in the streets during the summer holidays.

Nick Gibb, in his reaction to the latest exclusion figures, said ministers were encouraging the idea of alternative provision for excluded youngsters – possibly through private providers tabling plans to set up "free" schools to teach them.

The Independent last month revealed how in Sunderland the local premier league football club was teaching excluded pupils in classrooms at their Stadium of Light, recreating the atmosphere of a football match as they turned up for school to make them feel better about learning.

Sir Alan says he feels it was a "national scandal" that provision should vary so much from place to place. "The Government's answer is that the market will provide, but if the market doesn't provide in any given area you still have to have the necessary provision," he says.

One plan, though, he does agree with is a move – spelt out by ministers – to ensure schools should retain responsibility for the education of excluded youngsters. "Headteachers may not like it because they may have thought they had got rid of their troublemakers ," he says. The scheme, being trialled in several areas of the country from September, would force schools to consider what they should provide for excluded youngsters. It could mean schools banding together to set up pupil referral units,

Sir Alan also believes it is a "national scandal" that child mental health care services are a lottery for children. Depending on which area of the country a child lives in, it can take up to 18 months to get an appointment.

"If a young child had appendicitis and had to wait that long for treatment, there would be an uproar," he says. "It is just wrong."

He has had 18 months out of the limelight, which has enabled him to turn his attention to other things.

He is now chairman of the Ambition AXA awards scheme, which aims to reward young people with exceptional talents in the fields of sports, working in the community, the arts, science and enterprise. The awards, to be presented in the new year, are open to 11 to 18-year-olds, who have until mid-October to apply.

He has retired from his job as headteacher of Seven Kings School in Ilford, east London – where his reputation for having run an outstanding ship led to his selection for the job of behaviour tsar.

His new role, to which – as ever – he is devoting more time than he expected, is markedly different to when he had access to the seat of power in the education world.

Why the change of direction? "I couldn't keep churning out reports on discipline," he says.

"Besides, it's positive and you've heard me rabbit on about how there is so much negative publicity about youngsters these days. It's nice to be involved with something that's entirely positive."

It is a comment, one suspects, he would like those still in the corridors of power to take note of.

Exclusions: The good news story

Last year the number of permanent exclusions in English state schools dropped from 6,550 to 5,740. There were 5,020 exclusions from secondary schools and 620 from primaries.

The number of fixed-term exclusions also fell from 363, 280 to 331, 380 (279, 260 of which were from secondary schools and 37,210 from primaries).

The rate of permanent exclusions for boys was four times higher than that of girls. Black caribbean pupils were also nearly four times more likely to be excluded compared with the average – as were children entitled to free school meals.

The most common reason for exclusion was persistent disruptive behaviour. However, the figures also show that almost 900 pupils are excluded – either permanently or for a fixed-term – every day for abusing or assaulting fellow pupils or adults. A breakdown shows that staff in primary schools are more likely to suffer assaults than those in secondary schools.

There were 510 appeals against exclusions lodged by parents in 2009/10 – of which 24 per cent were successful. Of these, reinstatement of pupils was directed in 27 per cent of cases, a decrease of 12 percentage points on the previous year.

Overall, just 30 pupils throughout the country were returned to the classroom, down from 60 the previous year. However, this fall could partly be due to the fact that information on appeals against exclusions against academies are not collected and the number of academies has been constantly rising.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing

Other places that have held independence referendums
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

RE Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Teacher of Religious Education ...

Maths Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Long term Math Post - potentiall...

Science Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are currently recruiting for ...

Physics Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher - Humberside - S...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week