Cristina Odone assesses Catholic reactions to John Patten's guidelines on punishment in schools.
WHILE THE ROW intensifies over Mr Major's apparent U-turn on the Government's "back-to-basics" moral agenda, the Secretary of State for Education, John Patten, has issued a set of guidelines for pupil behaviour that brings schools out of their "value-free zone".
In a circular published last week, Mr Patten urged schools to teach children right from wrong, promote respect of property and honesty, trust, fairness, self-respect and self-discipline.
The document is destined to serve as a trouble-shooting aid in the area of discipline, bullying, and truancy. Mr Patten said the guidelines answered the call from a number of teachers who "felt uncertain about where to draw the line" on discipline.
Central to the argument of punishment in school is the notion of authority a notion personified in Catholic and non-Catholic classrooms by the teacher.
"With authority being questioned if not downright attacked at all levels of our society, the teacher no longer automatically demands or obtains respect in the classroom," complains Sarah Johnson, a Catholic and former Education Correspondent for both The Times and The Daily Telegraph, who is now writing a book on children of primary school age. "Strip the teacher of respect and you deal a death blow to authority and therefore discipline in the classroom."
Though Mr Patten is at pains, in his latest circular, to champion teachers, many who have spent a great deal of last year at loggerheads with Mr Patten over the national curriculum and league results, find that the Secretary of Education's belated support is dubious, at best: can John Patten spend months trying to browbeat teachers over a number of issues, and then expect school children to place them on a pedestal?
No, argues Mark Philpot, Secretary of the Catholic Teachers' Federation: "To command credibility as authority figures, the teachers needed to collaborate with the Government, and enjoy its support something that has not happened for at least six years now. The breakdown has come because a teacher walks into a classroom and can no longer guarantee respect."
Nigel Dc Gruchy, the General Secretary of the National Association of School Teachers Union of Women Teachers, echoes this viewpoint. He has publicly criticised Mr Patten's document on discipline as "pages of pious platitudes" and argued that the Government has done nothing to halt the "dramatic rise in the number of malicious accusations of sexual and physical abuse made by pupils against teachers".
For Mr Philpot, discipline indeed education in general can only be ensured if teachers have the total support of parents and government. "The Government can make this support manifest in true collaboration and co-operation with teachers. Dialogue rather than throw-away praise about 'you have done an excellent job' is what is needed now," he says.
To reinstate our faith in teachers will prove particularly difficult, Mr Philpot allows, in those areas where unemployment and poverty are prevalent: "Where there are other social concerns, the relationship between teachers and pupils is not the priority for parents: their first concern is how to get food on the table, how to find a job simply, how to survive."
And for Philpot, the parents' input in any programme that arims to improve school discipline, is essential.
Sarah Johnson agrees: "The parents must do the ground work they must teach their children from early on values such as respect for others, obedience, etcetera: and once their children are at school, they must support the teachers' endeavors to train the pupils in these traditional values."
Dom Antony Sutch, Benedictine Housemaster at Downside School for boys, near Bath, operates in a school environment that is, he admits, very privileged.
"At Downside," he explains, "we are fortunate in having pupils from backgrounds and homes that have an acceptance of and belief in discipline. The basic family structure and the basic Roman Catholic faith and its principles of living are accepted as the norm.
Yet even here, Fr Sutch admits, discipline problems can occur: "Discipline depends on a series of factors family background and the pupil's preparation is but one. There must also be in the teacher a natural authority, based on the integrity of the teacher."
But many teachers maintain that any "natural authority"that a teacher may have will be under
mined by the persistent attacks our society and in particular our media inflict upon it.
The media portrays almost all figures of authority, according to Sarah Johnson, in a negative light: "Any television hero, especially in the programmes marketed for children, defies authority these days. The message children are receiving, filtered through society, is that authority of any kind is a bad thing. And questioning of it a good thing."
And how does one deal with those pupils who question their teachers' authority? Mr Patten's paper points to the withholding of privileges and the temporary suspension of pupils from school as disciplinary measures. There remains an old-fashioned alternative which still finds some supporters corporal punishment.
Mark Philpot is adamant that corporal punishment has no place in Catholic schools: "If the assumption is that instilling discipline is only possible through corporal punishment, then this is not right. Jesus taught by authority and he did not resort to physical discipline," he says.
Sarah Johnson however feels that the issue needs to be looked at more carefully: "Not enough attention has been given to the alternatives to corporal punishment. Added to which, it is possible to instigate sanctions such as detention or the withdrawal of privileges.
"You have to have a privilege system in a school otherwise you have nothing to withdraw as a form of punishment."
Attitudes to punishment naturally vary enormously. In schools where a high level of violence is the norm, teachers are often stretched to the limit of endurance.
As Sarah Johnson recalls: "I know of one deputy head in a very tough secondary school for boys in Hackney who said to me were now operating on bluff. Sooner or later our bluff will be called."
Dom Anthony Sutch, however, considers that the re-instatement of corporal punishment would achieve little: authority can never be imposed, he maintains, but, rather, must be the result of a particular teacher-pupil relationship one based on teachers' respect for their student just as much as pupils' respect of their teachers: "There must be a recognition that the pupil has rights, is a person and demands courtesy."
In his own checklist of classroom "values" needed by teachers, Fr Sutch stresses the importance of the teacher "working for the pupil" and the importance of high expectations and appropriate encouragement.
Boredom, Fr Sutch warns, is a "major ingredient of disruption" and children have to be stimulated, excited and led to understand the value of learning.
Catholic educationalists agree that all children need to know what is appropriate behaviour and what is not: a code of right and wrong that should be instilled by parents and teachers together. Hence the emphasis on a close collaboration between home and school with regards to both a code of behaviour and sanctions taken against those who disregard this code.
"On the whole," argues Mr Philpot, "This collaboration can be found in most of our Catholic schools. Parents who choose to send their children to Catholic schools arc by implication choosing a specific moral code. Their commitment to its implementation is therefore all the greater."
"Back-to-basics" traditional values cannot be imposed. In order to be absorbed, Catholic educationalists argue, the teacher needs to be re-instated as a respected figure of authority, one who collaborates closely with parents to teach a system of values and train pupils in living by this system.