New discipline powers miss the mark

President's comment, 1 November 2013

Significant media attention has recently been given to violence in schools and the LNP government’s new discipline powers for state schools.

Media reports notoriously provide only a small excerpt of the full response to media questions, so here is a more fulsome exploration of the issues.

Schools are a reflection of the communities in which they operate. Sadly, as violence escalates in our community, we see more of it in our schools and other public institutions. It is never acceptable for one person to lash out and physically or emotionally harm another. As a civilised society, we should always strive to assert and encourage appropriate behaviour that reflects community standards and expectations.

The fact that the data reports that 100 serious incidents of violence were reported in Queensland state schools in 2012 is of grave concern. Each of those incidents represents an unacceptable breach of the entitlement of students, teachers and principals to be safe at school/work. However, in the context of more than 500,000 students and their parents interacting with more than 50,000 workers in schools every school day, those doing the wrong thing represent a tiny minority.

The QTU welcomes any genuine attempt to reduce the administrative burden on schools and their principals. Our Union has campaigned on this matter for years, and the legislative changes do go some way to addressing the issue.

However, the government's assertion that the new discipline powers for principals will reduce the number of suspensions and exclusions by enhancing the ability of principals to punish students is patently wrong and misleading, as any educator knows. Creating new and enhanced punishments does not address the causes of behaviours, it focuses on the symptoms. Behaviour issues continue until the causes are addressed.

The Minister’s media release highlights the government's expectation that these enhanced powers for principals will be accompanied by “higher expectations about how they manage issues within their community” .

This is especially concerning given that not one additional cent will be provided to schools to support the implementation of these powers. Saturday detentions cannot be delivered without money to pay for appropriately qualified professionals to supervise students and the programs in which they will be engaged as punishment. In addition, teachers cannot be compelled to work on Saturdays: a matter that the LNP government is aware of but has refused to negotiate around.

Inappropriate behaviour at school is not a modern invention and the number of suspensions and exclusions reported for Queensland state schools will likely change very little as a consequence of these changes to legislation.

What then can be done? The solution lies in the broader school community. Teachers, principals, parents, students and the general public working together to develop community specific responses to the behaviour issues they experience.

The Parliamentary committee reviewing the legislation made several recommendations regarding the policy and procedures that will accompany the legislation and the need for a continued emphasis on early intervention and positive behaviour management strategies, not just the “last resort” options of suspension and exclusion. There is little evidence of the Minister heeding these recommendations and the policy and procedures documents are still under development.

Classroom management and behaviour management are fundamental issues for every teacher and principal in every school. The experts in these processes do not sit in the Queensland Parliament. However, real change cannot be delivered without the financial and policy backing of the government of the day.

The legislative changes may well reflect the wishes of the principals who were asked by the Minister to express their concerns, but the LNP government must put aside politics and fully engage with all teachers and principals through the Queensland Teachers’ Union as their chosen representatives if such changes are to become more than just hollow words.

Kevin Bates

1 November 2013