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By Alex Wood
Published in Holyrood Magazine, 16 January 2012
The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association’s statement on school exclusions is inflammatory.  “Senior managers in a small number of schools across Scotland are refusing to deal with pupils whose indiscipline is both detrimental to learning and spreading fear and alarm throughout the school community.”
Let’s examine this.  There has been a diminution in the automatic respect learners give teachers.  Rights have been prioritised, responsibilities deprioritised.  Families increasingly back their children against school, even where their children’s behaviour is appalling.  All of this has made the maintenance of discipline more complex.
Secondly, the reduction in specialist facilities for young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties, has indeed reduced meaningful options for excludees.
Thirdly, there is some pressure from on high.  When my last school was inspected, the lead inspector noted a purposeful ethos, good behaviour and good relationships but that exclusions were slightly above expected levels.  We responded that while we always sought to avoid unnecessary exclusions, the purposeful ethos, good behaviour and good relationships were testament to an appropriate balance of approaches in behaviour management, including our approach to exclusions.  We heard nothing more on the issue.
None the less, the reality is diametrically different from the SSTA view.  Firstly, exclusions are indeed falling and not because of inappropriate pressures but because of enhanced teacher skills.  On that, Mike Russell is right.  HMIe reports confirm that behaviour is good in the overwhelming majority of Scottish schools.
For older teachers, a step back in memory confirms that.  In junior secondaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with unqualified, inexperienced teachers, discipline was either poor or imposed by indiscriminate corporal punishment.  The mid-70s and 1980s saw comprehensivisation and the baby-boom.  Teachers from the selective system frequently could not cope.  Far from a decline from a golden age of ‘good discipline’, the decade newly passed was one of increasing teacher skills leading to both better learning and better behaviour.
Unfortunately, dire warnings from the SSTA about an impending discipline crisis are not new.   The SSTA’s response to Lothian Region’s Youth Strategy in 1989, was to warn that it represented rewards for bad behaviour and an undermining of discipline and good order in schools.
There are three possible reactions to the SSTA statement.  The first is that it is accurate.  In schools across Scotland, management fails to enforce discipline and endangers staff and students.  Even if this is the case however, according to the SSTA it is in a ‘small number’ of schools. Discipline is never a simple issue and every school manager worthy of the name sees it as a top priority.  (Not the top priority but certainly one of them.)  The SSTA really has to be specific.   The appropriate response would have been an official report of these concerns by the SSTA to Education Scotland with a request that these particular schools be inspected.
The SSTA statement may have an element of fact.  There may be two or three such schools across the country.  Again a rhetorical press statement was not the appropriate response.  The SSTA should, on behalf of its members in these schools, have sought discussions with management in the schools.  If there was no improvement the SSTA would have a legitimate grievance.
The third possibility is that the SSTA statement is merely a reflection of few conservative teachers who believe that there was a golden age of good discipline, now disappeared, and a populist appeal to teachers that the SSTA, alone among teacher unions, takes discipline seriously.
Whichever is accurate, a New Year press statement stressing indiscipline offered no hope for the year ahead and undermined teacher professionalism.
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