Peace terms for class warfare: Susan Elkin argues that punishment is not the answer to problems of school discipline

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The Independent Online
IT IS a pity that the Government's worthy attempt last week to promote better standards of classroom behaviour should have been trivialised by so much silly comment about corporal punishment.

There has been an abundance of repellently prurient - and totally irrelevant - media interest in John Patten's boyhood experiences in his Jesuit school, lengthy histories of caning/flogging/beating in British schools and a number of tasteless cartoons. Still worse is the insidious implication that good Britons would happily revert to supporting such ritualised assault on their children if only they were not prevented from doing so by European legislation.

The real issue is that an increasing number of pupils are behaving in an antisocial, disruptive or inappropriate way, which inhibits their learning and that of those around them. And teachers often do not know how to deal with it.

At its most basic, school discipline involves one group of people, teachers, finding the means to persuade another group, pupils, to behave in a way that may not seem natural, reasonable or attractive to the latter. In other words it is to do with forming good-quality working relationships, between personalities. It doesn't have a lot to do with 'sin- bins', detentions or standing in the corner.

Teachers who sneeringly regard their pupils as some kind of inferior race are inevitable failures when it comes to keeping order. Pupils quickly sense their dislike and see through over-authoritarian shouting and idle threats. Disrespect rapidly follows and with it a breakdown in classroom discipline.

There are such teachers in every school. I have seen them in action, worked with them, listened to them and tried to counsel their 'unruly' pupils when called in as a fire-fighting senior member of staff. In many cases it is the teachers who need help to change their inflexible behaviour and manner, which have caused, or fuelled, the indiscipline.

There is often a colossal and dangerous arrogance, probably born of insecurity and inadequacy, which precludes any real understanding or acknowledgement of the problem. It takes a particular sort of confident but sympathetic, firm but friendly personality to succeed in a Nineties classroom, something that those who select recruits for teacher-training would do well to bear in mind.

Most of today's schoolchildren are the offspring of Sixties parents. We have brought them up to question, challenge, not to be afraid to ask why, to fight injustice, with the result that some are 'bloody, bold and resolute' in every sense. All good liberal stuff and in some ways a great educational advance from the days when many young people were cowed into timidity in order to receive a force-fed diet of dimly understood facts, like the foie gras geese of Perigord.

But there has to be a negative side. Teachers no longer have automatic positional authority. The days of 'You will do as I say because I am a teacher and you are a pupil' have gone, irretrievably. Today's teachers have to forget the traditional 'tin god' model that some of them remember from their own pre- Sixties school days. Rather, the emphasis has to be on charisma, befriending pupils and on knowing and respecting them as human beings with thoughts and feelings. Shared laughter is about the most effective bonding tool - but you have to be reasonably relaxed to let it happen.

Bill Rogers, the Australian guru of school discipline who has run a number of excellent courses in Britain, argues: 'You don't have to like all your pupils. No one could ask for that. But it is your professional duty to respect every one of them.' If all teachers could be helped to work towards achieving just that, there would be a dramatic improvement in school discipline.

Regrettably some parents actively encourage the bad behaviour of their offspring. I have vivid memories of an incident last summer when an irate mother burst angrily and abusively on to school premises to 'sort me out'. I had to be protected by colleagues while the headteacher persuaded the mother that there were more appropriate ways of lodging a complaint.

My offence? At the request of the science staff, I had taken her daughter into my office for a quiet chat about her unacceptable behaviour in a science lesson. Her mother, whose power as a role model was clearly part of the reason for her daughter's behaviour problems, objected vociferously, violently and publicly to any criticism of her daughter.

This sort of happening is by no means uncommon. Punishment clearly has no relevance. Intervention by a professionally qualified school counsellor would be more to the point, but few schools see the need for one, or indeed can afford it, even when they want one. Working with parents to establish shared aims is crucial to good discipline, but its importance is rarely acknowledged.

How odd, too, that in all the discussion about school discipline no one has mentioned the excellent Elton Report of March 1989. Lord Elton's Discipline in Schools, which Kenneth Baker commissioned as Education Secretary (presumably at considerable public expense), seems to have become the biggest non-event in recent education history. Yet this positive and detailed (292 pages) report brims over with commonsensical, humane and sensitive suggestions.

Lord Elton, for example, proposed that all teacher training should include specific practical training in ways of motivating and managing groups of pupils. Bravo. But five years have passed and it hasn't happened; we are still wringing our hands and worrying about punishments. The report also wisely points out that the problem is too complex to allow the conjuring of simple or complete remedies.

And that surely is the nub. Good school discipline does not depend on anything as straightforward as the deterrent effects of punishment, which is not to say that a bottom-line sanction might not be required in the occasional instance where all else has failed.

Schools must focus on establishing appropriate lines of communication and on finding ways of helping teachers to relate to pupils. And I hope that a considered look at the Government's guidelines, with their emphasis on good teacher behaviour, involvement of pupils and parents in policy making and rewards for satisfactory pupil behaviour, will encourage schools to do just that.

The writer has been a teacher for 26 years.

(Photograph omitted)

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