Jayne Dowle: Sending in troops is no way to battle school indiscipline

WOULD you send your child to boot-camp? Living in the battle-zone that is our house, with two kids engaged in a constant war of attrition over the television remote, it is sometimes a very tempting notion.

But it’s just a notion. And that’s the way it should stay. No-one can shout louder than me, as my son especially will testify, but one thing I have learned in eight years as a parent is that it is just as important to listen.

So I am not impressed with Michael Gove’s latest wheeze – to launch boot-camps where unruly pupils will be despatched to learn how to behave. The Education Secretary is giving a £1.5m grant to a charity called SkillForce, which is launching three pilot boot-camp projects in Liverpool and Hull.

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The idea is draft in 100 war veterans to deliver physical drills, assault courses and run practical lessons outdoors.

Now, I am all for discipline. When Gove first pondered the idea of retraining ex-servicemen and women as teachers, I was in favour. Not only would distractable kids be fascinated by teachers with colourful stories to tell, they would benefit from such strong role models in the classroom. SkillForce reports success from its existing work with disadvantaged youngsters.

But this plan to march off all the naughtiest boys and girls to boot-camp? It’s an idea that should have stayed on the back of the envelope it was thought up on. All it does is distract from some of the serious and endemic problems that afflict a huge number of our schools.

It is reckoned that there are some 16,000 children in England and Wales “outside school”. Most have been excluded for bad behaviour. It is clear that boot-camp would perpetuate the division between children in school and those who have been kicked out.

Surely, it would be more sensible to enforce stringent measures to prevent these children from being excluded in the first place?

Existing teachers and support staff need the power to mete out discipline, backed up by a supportive system that does not penalise them from trying to keep order. You only have to recall the recent case of the dinner lady who lost her job after intervening in a playground dispute to realise that. Some schools – such as the privately-funded “New Labour” academy near us – have a dedicated anti-social behaviour officer on-site.

Every parent I talk to about this school, built to replace a comprehensive so fraught with problems it teetered on the brink of closure, remarks upon the strong ethos of discipline, within its walls. No need for boot-camp here.

It should also be remembered that Ministers don’t see what we parents see. It’s unlikely that their offspring go to the kind of educational establishments we’re talking about. A kid who has been thrown out of school, or singled out for “special treatment” such as boot-camp, can become a playground hero, regarded with something approaching awe. Not the kind of role model any of us want for our children. And, just a thought, but not every mixed-up kid excluded from school would respond favourably to such a tough regime.

These headline-grabbing boot-camps will no doubt be spun to look like a positive way of getting to grips with chaos. But don’t you find it galling that this is the only solution the Education Secretary can come up with to solve the problems in our most troubled schools, while at the same time encouraging parents to set up progressive “free schools”?

It is one rule for the nice middle-class communities with the time and wherewithal to run their own show, and one rule for those at the other end of the scale. All it does is underline the possibility that scores of schools will be forgotten and neglected, left to fester and drained of resources, with only extreme recourse for the most badly-behaved pupils.

It smacks to me of defeat without even trying. Why not concentrate the cash on keeping kids involved and engaged in school? Gove had to perform an embarrassing U-turn on his decision to withdraw funding for school sport partnerships, arguably one of the most-proven ways to teach disruptive kids team-work and discipline.

Although he has managed to find £47m to ensure the programme continues until July, future investment looks uncertain.

Sure, it’s great that he is finding jobs for all the soldiers who will be made redundant in the defence spending cuts, but what does Gove propose to do with the thousands of sports coaches who could find themselves out of work in the next few years?

And, excuse me, but if I was a battle-scarred sergeant major with a redundancy notice in my inbox, I might feel just a teeny bit patronised by the Government’s decision to re-deploy me as a social worker in combat gear.

I’m sure I’d find the words of Defence Secretary Liam Fox of great comfort: “The nation’s children will thrive under the mentorship of these courageous individuals.”

It’s not the former soldiers who need courage, or necessarily the kids, it’s those ministers who refuse to accept that a short, sharp shock will not solve classroom indiscipline.