Look to the classrooms not the shopping centres

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The Independent Online

The Government's sudden concern with dress codes in shopping centres is easily mocked. But there is no doubt that the Prime Minister's concern with the underlying issue, the breakdown of mutual respect on the streets and in schools, has struck a chord. It is a big and difficult problem to which there are no easy solutions, which is why, whatever Tony Blair's motives for opening the debate, it should be welcomed.

The Government's sudden concern with dress codes in shopping centres is easily mocked. But there is no doubt that the Prime Minister's concern with the underlying issue, the breakdown of mutual respect on the streets and in schools, has struck a chord. It is a big and difficult problem to which there are no easy solutions, which is why, whatever Tony Blair's motives for opening the debate, it should be welcomed.

The Independent on Sunday has already launched an investigation into one aspect of the problem, namely violence and indiscipline in schools. Today, we focus on the anguish of parents whose children are bullied. As Mr Blair says, some of the causes are deep-seated, "in the way that some kids grow up, generation to generation, without proper parenting, without a proper sense of discipline within the family". But there are still important implications for schools policy, some of which contradict the dominant assumptions of the education world. The ideal of comprehensive education sometimes slips too easily into a lazy inclusiveness. In 1997 Labour tried from good motives to reduce the number of school exclusions, but had to retreat.

It is disappointing that, after eight years, so little improvement in underperforming and indisciplined schools has been purchased with so much extra public spending. No wonder that the Prime Minister wants to press on impatiently with city academies - privately sponsored state schools in deprived areas. Unfortunately, the way he handled his ministerial appointments last week threatens to divert debate into personalities.

Although his critics have a tendency to defend a deeply unsatisfactory status quo, they are right that sponsors are given too much control of new schools for a small share of the cost. Yet almost anything that shakes up the culture and leadership of schools in disadvantaged areas should be cautiously encouraged.

There are many other assumptions about education that should not remain unchallenged if the depth of the crisis of discipline is to be addressed. Secondary schools are often too large and, despite decades of good intentions about vocational education, most of the system is modelled on a uniform, regimented academic model that fails to engage the interest of too many pupils. Forget hoodies; let the real issues be tackled.

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