Most parents acknowledge that simply suspending a student from school may not actually change inappropriate behaviour or fix a problem but it is still seen as a necessary sanction in some circumstances.
New steps proposed by the Education Directorate as part of the review of its Suspension, Transfer or Exclusion of Students policy will focus on intervention and support, with suspension as a last report.
The ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Association says it is a shift towards prevention and behavioural change, as well as more in-school suspension that may be used informally.
The hope is that students can have the opportunity to modify their behaviour and actually learn from that experience rather than having a two-day absence from school.
P&C Association policy officer Veronica Elliott says many schools are already taking this ‘best practice’ approach but there is a lack of consistency across the ACT.
“We’re pleased that teachers and principals have additional measures to intervene with student behaviour early rather than resorting to suspension because we know that while suspension works in most instances, occasionally suspension is really ineffective in changing student behaviour and that these students go on to continually disengage in schools,” she said.
The new policy refers to schools drawing on support services and using restorative justice practices, where victim and perpetrator can be brought together, as part of a school’s toolbox.
This immediately raises the issue of adequate resourcing to ensure an intervention can be successful and at present, the Directorate is struggling to employ enough school counsellors let alone ensure all schools have the capacity to call in whatever skills they may need to deal with a situation.
And skill is required in conducting restorative justice, a contentious process that has its risks, particularly for the victim.
The P&C admits resources are a concern, but where schools have had the capacity to intervene and provide positive behavioural supports early, it has prevented further trouble down the track.
“So investing these resources up front have been really important. This really relies on really good relationships between schools and families and honest and direct feedback between all parties,” Ms Elliott says
The ACT Principals Association, rightly, is alarmed at what it sees as limits being imposed on principals’ power to suspend students, and also has concerns about the victims of poor and violent behaviour.
Association head Michael Battenally told the ABC that suspensions were still effective for managing behaviour, and were mostly one-offs that sent a clear message.
He also said suspension was not just about the offender, but the victims.
“If you had a child at school and that child was in a situation where they were assaulted … you would expect and would hope their needs were being met through the outcome as much as the student who was the offender,” Mr Battenally said.
While principals may still retain the power to suspend students, they may reasonably feel that instead of taking the immediate action they feel is warranted, their hands will be tied.
The Directorate says administrative procedures will also be simplified, which many might see as ironic considering that schools and their principals will have much more to consider when confronting disruptive, recalcitrant and violent students, many of whom are quite adept at gaming the situation.
It has always been preferable to nip issues in the bud but if the ACT is to go down this path the Directorate needs to provide sufficient resources to schools, and principals will still need to feel that they can act decisively, particularly when violence is involved.
Otherwise, all the good intentions in the world, even if backed by the latest research, can come to naught and may even backfire.
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