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The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2005
Spare the rod
Reward and motivation can be just as effective as punishment, writes Brenda Cunningham-Lewis.
Some teachers yearn for the good old days, when they could solve any disciplinary problem with six of the best instead of paper shuffling and mediation, but others say the new approach is delivering results.
The debate was reignited recently when a volunteer teacher at a Catholic primary school in Wollongong ordered 20 pupils to seal their mouths with masking tape. When a child suffered an allergic reaction, an official Board of Studies investigation was launched and the community began to question whether this was an isolated incident or common practice.
Corporal punishment was banned in government schools in 1985, then temporarily reinstated in 1988. When 95 per cent of schools chose not to reintroduce it, corporal punishment was again outlawed in 1995.
For the past decade, NSW schools have relied on a combination of tough talk, time-outs, detention, a soccer-like system of red and yellow cards that indicate the seriousness of the offence and a likely penalty, meetings with parents, and threats of expulsion or removal to one of the new behaviour schools that focus on maintaining discipline.
Recognising the problem of imposing discipline in the classroom, the NSW Government this year announced an additional 1400 places would be created at behaviour schools - for disruptive students - on top of 2400 existing positions in the public education system.
Despite innovative measures, teachers are still reluctant to talk on the record about how they deal with problem students. One maths teacher mourns the cane's passing. The teacher, who is on the verge of retiring, administered the punishment twice weekly for many years in western Sydney, Blue Mountains and British schools until it was phased out in the 1980s.
"It doesn't do a lot for the kid who cops it, but it quietens the rest of the mob. It's the fear of the cane," he says.
The Catholic school-educated teacher grew up with choir masters called Basher and Bruiser. "Whole classes used to be strapped and it made me do my homework," he says.
He adds, only half-joking: "I would love to sue the makers of The Simpsons for the added work they have given me - for all the comedians."
A Department of Education spokeswoman, Pembe Mentesh, says many experts, including child psychiatrists and child protection advocates, believed the use of corporal punishment was harmful to children and there was no evidence to show that the use of corporal punishment either deterred children from misbehaviour or corrected misbehaviour.
Mentesh says there is a widespread belief corporal punishment teaches children that hitting is an acceptable way of solving conflict. The current methods, while still being evaluated, were working.
From 1996 a new student welfare and discipline policy package was issued. Every government school was required to develop, in conjunction with its community, a disciplinary policy or code.
This policy development process is still in place and schools regularly review their disciplinary policies and practices to reflect local needs and student behaviour.
Maree O'Halloran, president of the NSW Teachers Federation, says more could be done because teachers are spending too much time acting as school counsellors. While smaller class sizes in primary schools are helping with behaviour management, more attention is needed in the early high school years, she says.
She adds that the department should take on board all the recommendations of the 2002 Vinson report, which followed the Inquiry into the Provision of Public Education in NSW. The report advocated placing more teachers in schools to specifically handle discipline, providing more support for children with learning difficulties and a more determined approach recognise good behaviour. The principal of Beaumont Hills Public School, Jan Anderson, uses rewards such as lunch with the principal and canteen dollars for students who show respect, tolerance and general good behaviour.
"Schools are places of learning, not detention centres," Anderson says.
The principal of Northern Beaches Christian School, Stephen Harris, says: "The number one key goal to behaviour management is getting kids engaged in learning; [that takes care of] 90 per cent of the behaviour management ."
Harris, who is state chairman of Christian Schools Australia, says a young and motivated staff, electives such as robotics and forensic science, community panels and a tough-love approach to discipline have also worked well.
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