CAR1NG IS a fashionable word that has become meaningless when applied to schools. Is there a school in the country which says that it is not a caring school? "Caring" is, wrongly, set against discipline. In fact, the school without good discipline cannot possibly be a caring school and the greatest act of caring that a school can provide is a well-disciplined environment.
Over the years, Catholic schools have had a reputation for good discipline. Usually, in any area, the Catholic school is, to say the least, among the best disciplined_ There are several reasons for this: one hopes that it has something to do with the spiritual and moral virtues of the Catholic faith. Then, too, since no parent can be ordered to send a child to a Catholic school, there is always at least some element of choice in a parent's requesting a Catholic school. Any Catholic school that does not work closely with parents is actually breaking Canon law which orders it so to do. The top priority of parents has always been for a welldisciplined school, as any head who listens to parents will confirm.
However, over the years, one major factor has undoubtedly been that Catholic schools have been run by their governors for the benefit of their pupils and not run by Local Education Authorities, politicians with an agenda that might include the promotion of homosexuality but has rarely been concerned with good discipline. This has now changed, The Government has set up independent appeal panels for exclusions (which it is better to call by the readily understood name of "expulsions") as well as for admissions. The Government's 1998 Education Act destroyed the rights of Catholic governors. rights which had been fought for over more than a century.
Currently, Catholic schools are no different in this regard from the local comprehensive. If a pupil is expelled, the pupil's parents can appeal to an independent appeals panel that has no responsibility at all to the school, let alone to the Catholic Church. Worse still, though, the parents can continue to appeal, the school head and governors cannot appeal against the decision of the appeals panel.
Last year, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, made the situation even worse by deciding, in a typical Blairite move, that there were too many expulsions and so schools must be given targets to reduce the number of expulsions, not, be it noted, targets to improve discipline in school. Schools not achieving their targets of reductions would be "fined" up to £6,000. The outcry about this nonsensical policy from the teachers' unions, together
with the fact that the Conservatives have said that they would bring back the right of schools to decide for themselves, has brought about a slight change of plan, On August 1, Schools minister, Ms Jackie Smith announced that the Government would, in a way that has become a stereotype for new Labour, give new guidelines for the appeals panels and also spend the taxpayers' money on "providing training" for the members of the Appeals panels. Appeals panels would be told, in a directive to be issued in the next few weeks before schools restart in September that they " should not normally reinstate a pupil who has been permanently excluded for -serious actual or threatened violence against another pupil or member of staff; sexual abuse; or, presenting a significant risk to health and safety of other pupils by selling illegal drugs; persistent and malicious disruptive behaviour including open defiance or refusal to conform with agreed school policies on, for example, discipline or dress code." Ms Smith and the government obviously hoped that this slight cosmetic change would satisfy those who have criticised its policy on expulsions but, of course, such pusillanimous measures have done no such thing. The unions are still protesting and poor old head teachers will have to come to terms with yet another set of rules and guidelines. Meanwhile, the Government seems proud of the fact that this year it will spend £140 million on "truancy, discipline and the education of excluded children ." It seems a strange idea to reward bad behaviour with small classes and special treatment.
THE MYSTERY is why the Catholic Church in England and Wales has allowed the rights of Catholic governors, and, therefore, of parents, to be eroded over the years. The position of Appeal panels in expulsions is similar to that of Appeals panels for admissions to Catholic schools. Again, the ones making final decisions are not school governors but appeals panels who have no respon
sibility to anyone. In primary schools now, government regulations will not allow classes of more than 30 and so Catholic schools cannot admit Catholic pupils to whom they wish to give places. It has been rightly said that the Appeals panels have more power in this regard than the bishop of the diocese or, indeed, than the Pope himself. Neither the bishop nor the Pope can order a Catholic school to take a particular pupil but the Appeals panels can and there is no right of appeal against their decisions.
It must be said that, though the Appeals panels were set up under the Conservative governments, the whole situation was made worse by the Labour Government's 1998 Act. The Catholic Authorities nationally were warned that this would happen but, astonishingly, they welcomed the act and refused to give any support to Conservative amendments which would have strengthened the rights of Catholic governing bodies.
What should be done? The Catholic authorities nationally must fight for the rights of
Catholic schools. There should be a return to the situation which used to appertain. In the past, a Catholic head could expel for any reason and then inform the parents of their right of appeal to the governors of the school. The governors, with their overall responsibility, are the right ones to decide whether the benefit of one child should take priority over the rights of all the children in the school
Anyone connected with Catholic education over the years know that Catholic governing bodies, in almost every case, have always acted with responsibility in this and every other matter. This policy would be universally popular with the teachers' unions. Those who speak for Catholic education should not be afraid of standing up to the Government and of asserting the rights for which generations of Catholic parents fought.
Of course, there is more to good discipline than the right to expel. Positive elements are obviously important: teaching the whole Catholic faith properly, as the Holy Father has commanded; good teaching leading to good examination results; supporting good charities; a full programme of extra-curricular activities, especially sport; and so on. However, expulsion must remain as an option especially now that corporal punishment, ordered by the Bible, is now illegal against the wishes of parents and pupils, That a head teacher recently seems only narrowly to have avoided being sent to prison for touching a pupil will not have done much for teachers' morale.
Finally, what about the idea that it is somehow non-Christian to expel and that one should always forgive? In the school situation it is irresponsible not, as a final resort, to protect other pupils by excluding on pupil .
The most caring head teacher of all time is probably the late Philip Lawrence, murdered, perhaps the right word is "martyred", defending his pupils.
Yet Philip Lawrence probably held the record for the most expulsions ever. In two years he expelled some sixty pupils to give the other pupils in the school an ordered environment in which to learn.. Even those whom he expelled approved of his actions. Indeed, one could argue that the shock of expulsion would benefit most the one expelled. It is not caring to ignore bad behaviour.
Eric Hester had been, until his early retirement last year a headmaster of Catholic grammarand comprehensive schools for twenty-four years. He is editor of the independent periodical for Catholic teachers, parents and governors, Mentor.