Shephard urges discipline on parents

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

Parents would be forced to ensure that their children go to school and that they behave properly when they get there under legislation announced by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, yesterday.

A new package of measures revealed by Mrs Shephard at the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers conference in Glasgow would tighten up many areas of school discipline, she said.

Parents could be told that they might lose their right to choose their children's schools if they persistently offended, she suggested.

Schools could be allowed to exclude children for up to 45 days in any one year, extending the limit from the current 15. They might also be allowed to insist that parents back their discipline policies - at present, they can refuse to allow their children to be kept in detention.

Mrs Shephard also said there would be inspections of all special units for disruptive pupils. Poor reports have been issued on many of the first such units to receive these visits.

She criticised both schools and parents for having abused the regulations on exclusions, allowing indefinite suspensions - now abolished - to drag on too long. Children had been left in limbo too often, she said.

"Good behaviour and discipline in schools are key foundations of good education. Without an orderly atmosphere in the classroom effective teaching and learning cannot take place," she said.

After a consultation period, legislation could be put forward as soon as this autumn, she said.

Teachers have complained that they cannot enforce discipline because parents are often un-cooperative, and that rules on parental choice often force them to take pupils who have been excluded elsewhere.

In future, parental choice could be withdrawn in such cases and instead children could be placed by local authorities in the schools of their choice.

However, Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the union, said that the legislation would need to be backed by resources. He criticised Mrs Shephard for suggesting that schools had been too eager to exclude pupils in the past. The numbers have risen to 15,000 per year.

"If the profession were exclusion-happy we would not have 15,000. I think we would have more than 150,000 excluded every year. It's all very well to say that we can't leave these kids in limbo. But I don't want teachers and the majority of children left in hell."

John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads' Association, said many schools were excluding children because their parents had refused to comply with other sanctions.

"We have to put emphasis on the welfare of other children in the school as well as on the one child who is being disruptive," he said.

t Meanwhile, Mrs Shephard admitted that not all parents in four pilot areas introducing nursery vouchers this spring had applied to take part. However, she said, Norfolk had 25 new nursery units and 400 private providers wanting to offer places. In Wandsworth, south-west London, 76 per cent of parents had applied for vouchers and in Norfolk 87 per cent had done so.

Mrs Shephard was also called upon to defend the school inspection system, which has been criticised by teachers this week for being bureaucratic.

"I regard the inspection process as one of the most important of the Government reforms. Let me say very clearly: it is here to stay," Mrs Shephard said.