Will no one think of the children?

You don’t help a child by killing them with kindness.

There is a school in CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair called Experiment House. In this school, there are no rules. Children are free to do as they please. Sanctions apply only to teachers, but are decided and administered by the pupils. In my experience, as behaviour adviser and host of the behaviour forum, I have found that the educational ethos of Experiment House not only exists in reality, but is in fact surprisingly common. I have often tried to help teachers struggling with difficult classes, only to find that the real cause of the problem is part of a whole school culture. Many schools seem to operate under the principle that teachers shouldn’t be in charge of lessons, that children should be treated with equivalent authority, and that no one should be sanctioned against, ever.

It hardly needs to be said that these are disastrous policies. Once all the muscle and blood has been stripped away, the skeleton of all good behaviour management is simply this: good actions are rewarded, while bad actions are discouraged. That’s it. Our duty is to make sure we encourage and discourage the correct things; students must be directed towards what is enriching and deterred from what is against the common good. A school should have two aims. The first is to promote educational advancement. The second is to encourage socialisation into the norms of the community, allowing children to cooperate and coexist with others. These missions must be our guiding stars.

So, to this end, we reward and sanction.

We can’t expect the children to necessarily like the course we set for them. They will be displeased by much of what we want them to do at school. But few things worth a damn were ever gained without effort. There are no short cuts to a six-pack, or to learning the secrets of the ancients. ‘You want fame?’ asked Debbie Allen in the eponymous 1982 series, ‘Well fame costs. And right here’s where you start paying…in sweat.’ It is true that learning can be hard work. Of course, it can also be fun at times. I try to mix up the work my classes do. Variety leavens the lesson, and seasons it as surely as Mary Poppins’ approach to tidying children’s rooms. But if you take away the hard work, then what are you left with? A PlayStation and a word search.

It is our natural state to demand all freedoms for ourselves while neglecting the freedoms of others. Yet we flourish when we are able to put aside immediate gains for the greater good of a longer, larger one. Some children are better at this than others, having been raised in an environment where manners and routine are imbedded. Others will have suffered the ‘luxury’ of absolute freedom. Whatever their background, all children need adult direction to help develop the habit of exercising self-restraint. They need us to set boundaries. They need us to draw up rules, and then have the courage to police those rules. They need us to restrain their egotistical impulses until they are mature enough to self-administer. To permit everything is to teach the child that their actions have no personal consequence, that the feelings and concerns of others should be of no concern to them, and that life is an extended infancy of ease and satisfaction. What terrible disservice we do when we teach this. It trains children to be helpless, leaving them unable to strive against the trials that life will inevitably set before them.

All too often, schools fail to set clear boundaries and sanctions. They might threaten, though ultimately do nothing. Leadership blames teachers, suspecting them of weakness when classes go mad. There is failure to exclude even violent pupils. Teachers coo and fuss over the bully while leaving the victim alone in a class full of antagonists. Children are allowed to draw up school rules which are clearly against their real interests, and when children have this power, it results in the erosion of a learning culture and the waste of millions of working hours on situations which could be resolved with just a little more dedication.

I tire of the endless navel gazing in search of better teaching and learning, when the solution already lies within our grasp. Schools must teach children that their actions are meaningful and that they will be held to account if they do wrong. The problem is that Experiment House isn’t an experiment anymore. For many schools, it has become reality. In The Silver Chair, Aslan and his human chums eventually team up to overthrow the school’s rotten bullies, but until we can find our own friendly magical lion, the overthrowing is all down to us.

Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him. His latest new book Teacher, is out this month, published by Continuum/ Bloomsbury.