The day before yesterday, I had an online discussion with a couple of comrades (Jonathan Todd and Tom Watson, if you must know) on the subject of Michael Gove’s proposals for blanket banning mobile phones in schools and the wider subject of school discipline. First of all, to be clear, I have always thought that one of the best things we did in government was make a real priority of education: Sure Start, pumping money in, pushing up standards; “education, education, education”: absolutely. It really is something we should, on the whole, be immensely proud of.
But let’s look at the issue. On the one hand, I like to think I am not so unthinkingly tribal as to automatically dismiss everything the Tories propose on principle; however neither am I at all a fan of Gove (and sometimes I automatically dismiss things Tories say out of hand anyway because, well, they’re Tories and I’m only human). For example, his proposals to allow faith schools to exclude teachers not of the faith in question, if they so desire, I find unpleasantly divisive to our schools and the wider community.
However, on the issue of mobile phones I finding myself uncomfortably saying, well, why not? Not because I think that teachers and heads shouldn’t make their own decisions on discipline per se, as my comrades suggested to me, but because I am not sure why, if this actually works, we didn’t do it ourselves. What is surely true is that mobile phones and classrooms do not mix and there needs to be an effective mechanism to separate them. I wrote about this specific issue 18 months ago and believe it to be one of a number of serious disciplinary problems for teachers in state schools.
Whoever is right on this vexed issue of mobiles, it got me to thinking of the wider subject of school discipline. Now, it seems there are few subjects which get more nodding of heads among both parents and teachers, but which still remain unresolved. To the extent that, with Gove making these proposals, I am not sure what our legitimate defence is. I should also point out in fairness that Ed Balls as Schools Minister in the last government also made a particular priority of discipline; but one has to ask why we were making it a priority at the end of our term in office and not the beginning. And whether he managed to achieve something useful in those three years. And it is significant that Andy Burnham does not find anything in regarding discipline in the Education Bill that he disagrees with.
And so I find myself, although turned off by much of Gove’s program, drawn to this aspect. In truth, as a parent first, and as an activist second. And reading the Guardian article about it, it’s clear that it’s not black and white and there are issues which need covering. But, for example, it also mentions “the requirement to give parents a day's notice of a detention”. I’m sorry, what did you say? I was unaware this even existed (my daughter hasn’t reached the age of detentions yet) but, at the risk of coming over all Daily Mail, even having this requirement in the first place sounds like sheer madness to me. How did we ever get here? And why as a teacher can you not, it seems, restrain a child from hitting another child without risking your career?
So, as a mere parent rather than an education policy wonk, I should like to indulge in a small experiment in crowd-sourcing among LabourList readers, I’m sure including many parents and teachers, to get answers to some tricky questions:
1. Did we ever make a serious priority of discipline prior to Balls in 2007, and did our policies have any effect?
2. If it worked leaving the question of discipline up to teachers and heads, why is it still a problem?
3. Would it be so bad imposing disciplinary standards centrally, and if so, why?
4. Did we not deal with it because we had so many ministerial changes and reorganisations over the years that it just got lost in the shuffle? (For example, Ruth Kelly also had a push on discipline but was only in the job 18 months).
5. Or is it simply that parental attitudes have gradually worsened about supporting children over teachers, so that they encourage tougher discipline in general, except when it applies to their own kids (i.e. they behave irrationally)?
6. Or was there simply resistance to change within the system which we failed to take on effectively?
I genuinely don’t know the answer, and want to. I need to understand, if the Tories are able to do something that seems difficult to argue with – why could we not identify this - and fix it - during our thirteen years in power?
I’m struggling with this. Your opinions appreciated.