Mutual respect is the new school discipline.
What do you think of when you think of school discipline? A mortar board wearing male teacher flexing a cane? And then, when you think of bad school discipline? A 1970s classroom of feral behaviour and a hapless teacher struggling to be heard?
Old imagery, but the stereotypes persist. Most people would also casually agree that school discipline has deteriorated over the last decade or two. The banning of corporal punishment in 1986 for state schools and 1998 for independent schools is the popular reason. Even if the slipper/cane wasn’t actually used, the fear kept the class in order. Maybe, but there are a host of other plausible contributors too. Fast food, sugary snacks, phones and devices, political correctness, poor teacher training, weaker parenting, adversarial parents, to name the obvious. Tom Bennett, the Government’s School Behaviour Tsar also blames teachers disinclination to appear “oppressive” towards the pupils.
Good discipline is the pre-requisite for a good learning environment. If pupils are misbehaving then no-one can learn. Independent schools are usually seen as the champions of school discipline, state schools not so. School discipline is the second most popular reason for parents to move their children from state to independent schools. After class sizes. Yes, crowd control is more challenging in a class of 30 than 18. But I’m not convinced that school discipline is a state v independent issue.
There will always be singular acts of unacceptable behaviour. These are dealt with by schools on an exception basis. But it’s the low-level disruption that is the most persistent and damaging. Talking in class, backchat, lateness, pen tapping, using phones. It undermines attitudes to learning and grinds teachers down.
School discipline in action
Disciplinary techniques include separating transgressors, telling off, suspension from the classroom and detention. “It’s your own time you’re wasting” is a phrase seared into our collective memory. And then there are the stages of referral of the miscreant to senior staff up to the head teacher. And they probably work, by and large. Lids are kept on and situations are managed.
My not very representative (or random) focus group of eight 16 year olds confirmed this for me last week. I asked them what school discipline meant to them. They referred to pupils being shouted at, being sent out of the class to stand in the corridor and detentions. They saw little consistency in sanctions either from the same teacher or from teacher to teacher. And they thought at least half the punishments were unfair with an innocent party taking the rap. According to these teenagers, teachers shouted and their moods were changeable; humiliation their strongest weapon.
This isn’t a robust examination, and it may simply reflect teenagers’ attitude to authority. But in this group’s opinion school discipline is neither fair nor consistent, though probably proportionate. These pupils fear the sanctions but they haven’t necessarily learned the importance of treating the teacher well.
“Students should behave well not out of fear of punishment, but because they understand it’s important to treat others well.”
Sir Antony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, 2006-15
Some schools have adopted a zero tolerance approach to discipline. They publish a list of rules, and any transgression is met with sanctions. So, the press has a field day with stories about pupils being sent home for not straightening their ties. The court of social media quickly lambasts seemingly draconian policies.
Ofsted and school discipline
Don’t look to Ofsted reports for a clue on school discipline and behaviour. Though it reports on behaviour Ofsted doesn’t pick up on low level disruption. Why? It’s either because schools can game that element of the inspection or the inspectors aren’t looking for it. Almost without exception, the schools I review have a good or outstanding grade for pupil behaviour. Furthermore, pupil behaviour is often the highest score a school gets in an inspection. Strange that!
How will you know good behaviour and school discipline when you see it? From behaviour on an open day? Pupils walking quietly around the school with their eyes to the ground? A line of pupils sitting outside the Head’s office; the longer the line the better the discipline? Pupils standing up when a teacher enters the room, perhaps bowing to the teacher?
The point is, though we know what poor school discipline looks like, we can’t often describe good discipline. We tend to refer to it as not “bad discipline”. But what might it look like?
How parents can spot good school discipline
I prefer to think of school discipline as a culture of mutual respect. You respect me and what I’m trying to do, I respect you and what you are trying to do. I give the example of pupils standing up when a teacher enters the room. It’s an old fashioned view of discipline from a more deferential era. Today deference has to be earned. Today standing up when a teacher enters the room just looks twee. It isn’t respect. Unless, of course, the teacher reciprocates by standing up when the pupils enter the room.
You can quickly feel if a school has a culture of mutual respect. The head is highly visible, as are the staff. No hiding behind closed doors. They know the pupils’ names. The head, staff and pupils address each other in passing. They may even converse. But beware of any “matey” behaviour. Teachers are not mates, they are teachers. Like pupils they need to adhere to school discipline. But unlike pupils they also enforce it.
When you speak to a pupil they will know the school rules and the behaviour that is expected of them. They will understand why the school rules exist and how they support school values. How do they know? Because their pastoral/form teacher has explained it to them at the beginning of the year.
They will also know the sanctions should they misbehave. Being young they will have plenty of war stories about those who have been disciplined. Hopefully you’ll get a sense that they (and you) consider those sanctions fair, proportionate and consistent. And that those sanctions were delivered in manner which was calm and explained. It takes training and experience to do this well.