River Wissey Lovell Fuller

SOAPBOX AUGUST - Disciplining Children

August 2004

Ron takes a look at the vexed question of children's discipline

No I am not going to enter the argument about smacking, but the compromise proposed at the time of writing seems sensible i.e. to permit smacking provided the child is not harmed. Those who argue that the use of violence against a child, including smacking, may be right when they say it teaches the child that using violence is the way to get their own way, but I doubt it. It may also be right to have banned any form of corporal punishment in schools. What those who advocate this approach have failed to do, however, is to suggest an alternative effective means of maintaining discipline. I heard a report recently that there has been a sharp reduction in the number of schools offering the opportunity to study chemistry. The principal reason, it transpired, was not the lack of facilities or equipment but rather the inability to deal with disruptive behaviour and the consequent risk of accidents in the laboratories. A sad state of affairs.

There is much talk currently on the subject of schools and the changes that are being planned but I have heard nothing that encourages me to think that there are plans to enforce greater discipline. I believe that we have a problem in state schools where disruptive behaviour is difficult to check and, whilst the actual numbers may be small, some schools now have more than their fair share of troubled, ill behaved and challenging pupils. The behaviour of these children interferes with others and demands a disproportionate amount of teacher's time to the detriment of the majority who want to learn. Teachers who try to discipline the unruly are likely to find themselves threatened by the children in one way or another; there is always the threat of litigation, false allegations or even violence. Alternatively they may find themselves harassed or threatened by aggressive parents. The one sanction remaining for the school is exclusion, but even here the Head Teacher is overruled in the majority of cases and is forced to accept the disruptive pupil back - an action that gives the disruptive pupil a sense of victory and sends exactly the wrong signal.

The naturally bright child may be able to succeed despite the problems of disruption and inadequate teacher attention but the education of the rump of reasonably able and reasonably willing pupils unquestionably suffers as a consequence. The current practice of streaming pupils on ability and dedication results in a 'creaming off 'of the top stratum, which may help the better pupils but it can leave those less able but still willing to learn, the ones requiring the greatest attention from teachers and the best learning environment, having to suffer the disruptive behaviour. Streaming by putting the disruptive pupils together in a 'bottom' stream could possibly be a more effective use of the resources. Whatever the solution, there is little doubt to my mind that the present situation is failing many of those pupils who would learn more given a more disciplined environment.

Whilst on the subject of schools, it occurred to me recently that, because of the weird system of units that we had; 16oz to the 1lb, 14lb to 1stone, 12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to £1 etc, and in the absence of calculators, my generation had a much more difficult time with arithmetic. In those days the majority of children left school the day they reached the age of fourteen, yet, I believe, our generation was much better at arithmetic than school leavers today. A major factor that contributed to this greater arithmetical ability was, I am sure, the manner in which we were taught our 'times-tables' at an early stage by rote. The whole class was required to chant the tables and any pupil might be required to answer to "What are seven sixes?", for example, at any time. Why this is not done nowadays I cannot understand, but I am appalled at the very poor arithmetical ability of many young adults today. In my view the ability to think quantitatively and manipulate numbers is every bit as important as communication skills.

Ron Watts

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