A charter for pupils' conduct is a sad necessity

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The Independent Online

When Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said recently that there should be "zero tolerance" of pupils' indiscipline, she was greeted with scepticism. These were fine words, but would anything happen in practice? Now, the National Union of Teachers - a group not always known for toeing the Department of Education's line - has taken the first tentative steps towards giving substance to these sentiments, and it deserves credit for doing so.

When Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said recently that there should be "zero tolerance" of pupils' indiscipline, she was greeted with scepticism. These were fine words, but would anything happen in practice? Now, the National Union of Teachers - a group not always known for toeing the Department of Education's line - has taken the first tentative steps towards giving substance to these sentiments, and it deserves credit for doing so.

The NUT yesterday called for a national charter on acceptable behaviour in schools to be drawn up and agreed by the six unions representing heads and teachers. The charter would list the types of sanctions that would be appropriate for specific misdemeanours. Violence against staff or other pupils, for instance, might warrant permanent exclusion, while children who swore or made racist remarks might be sent home for the day.

An encouraging feature of yesterday's debate was that proposals for sanctions were coupled with calls for better support for disruptive pupils. Teachers recognised the need for more referral units where pupils can continue their education. Too many are currently left to non-existent home tuition; they roam the streets, vulnerable to criminal influences.

The fact that NUT members decided to give this debate priority at their annual conference is a regrettable sign of the times. Until recently, this union preferred to give the impression that all was well in the classroom; the racier National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers sounded the warnings. With the finding by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, that the proportion of secondary schools with good standards of behaviour had fallen from 75 to 66 per cent in two years, there is agreement among teachers' leaders that the problem needs to be tackled urgently.

A national charter need not mean that individual schools do not draw up their own codes of behaviour, as many already do. The chief benefit of national guidelines would be to help frame a consistent approach among schools, sending a single message to pupils and their parents. It is sad that such a document is needed at all; given that it is, the NUT has made a move in the right direction.

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