Leading Article: Discipline in the classroom

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JOHN PATTEN'S missive on school discipline, published yesterday, is thick with advice on classroom controls. As a boy, he might usefully have stuffed it down his shorts when facing another flogging from the Jesuits.

But the Secretary of State for Education has done little more than codify best practice. Most schools already have well-considered policies on discipline and will be disappointed if they expect to find new ways in this document of correcting incorrigible pupils. Discipline is, in any case, a significant problem for only a small minority of schools, as Professor Stewart Sutherland, Chief Inspector of Schools, reported recently.

But seriously disruptive children can wreak havoc and destroy the educational prospects of classes that comprise anything up to 40 children. Affected schools often have little idea how to respond. Yet this is an issue that deserves to be given a high priority.

Expulsions and suspensions have increased sharply, but such measures are admissions of failure. They simply mean that children with behavioural problems are passed from school to school and abandoned, so missing vital education. The situation could worsen as league tables of results and per capita funding provide further incentive to remove, rather than teach, difficult children.

Mr Patten is right to attack the unacceptable number of expulsions, particularly those carried out for arbitrary and trivial reasons. It is outrageous that girls are expelled because they are pregnant. But there is often a poverty of alternatives for dealing with disruptive pupils. A concerned teacher may have to wait a year before an educational psychologist sees a child. There are very few places available in specially designed 'referral units'.

Dealing responsibly with problematic children requires designated teachers. Lengthy, documentary advice from the Department for Education is not enough. Children should be given support focused on their needs in small groups, preferably within their own schools and with parents involved. It may be necessary to place them in specialised schools, but keeping children within mainstream education is almost always preferable.

All this extra support will cost money. Just like universal nursery education - which might catch potentially difficult children early - such a reform would require a reordering of government priorities. Local education authorities cannot afford the necessary outlay without extra resources.

The return from well-funded support could be large. As the main institution outside the family responsible for continuous child care, schools are often the last chance for disruptive children. If they fail, prison may be the next staging post. Sorely-tried teachers would welcome seeing these children taught properly without them disturbing their peers. Less troubled classmates could breath a sigh of relief and get on with their own studies in more peace and quiet.