Why do some middle-class people hate good behaviour?

20th November 2013 at 00:00



I've spent a career trying to help kids reach escape velocity from their childhoods into the outer space of adulthood. For them to climb so high, they need a launch pad, and that always, always prerequires good conduct. No exceptions. Despite Simon Cowell's wisdom no kid p*sses around at school and then wins the GCSE World Cup. Good behaviour is the climbing frame that allows their ascent. 


Hands are being wrung red in a bizarre article I read today, about Skinner's Academy in Hackney. I've read it several times, and I'm still scratching my head what the problem is. As far as I can see, the problem is that the school has a uniform policy, and clear guidelines about acceptable behaviour. Even the title is odd: 'Do strict behaviour policies at academies make for happy schools?' A: why are academies relevant here? Plenty of state comps are strict. B: What a weird question. We're not there to make them happy. We're there to educate them, and if we're lucky we hope they're happy too. But it's an incidental aim, not a primary one. This isn't Planet Hollywood. This isn't TGI Fridays. 


When I read an article like this, I'm struck by the realisation that there are people who work in challenging schools, and then there are people who know f*** all about challenging schools. They must do. Why else would they say things like 'children must be able to discover what rules are appropriate for themselves.'? Anyone with more than five minutes' experience running a room with children in it knows that without some kind of agreed standard of conduct, everyone makes their own minds up about what's acceptable. I wonder why society doesn't follow this example? Wait, I remember -- it's because sometimes people are cruel and selfish, and won't always decide to cooperate. Even the prisoner's dilemma is punctured by the Free Loader problem.


Tim Clark, the new Head of Skinner's, signs his own confession as a torturer of children. '"If you have an environment that's structured, and has clear guidelines, pupils will be happy and will learn," he says.


The SWINE. In a world ruled by justice, he'd be breaking rocks with a pick axe and begging mercy for his soul.


The crime sheet grows longer.


'_____ ________ withdrew her 13-year-old son, N______, from the school this term after a series of incidents in which he was punished for what she felt were minor infringements. He is now being educated at home via an online school because, she says, there is no place available in a local school with a less strict discipline policy.'


Now I have nothing to say for this young man's conduct. I'm sure his karma is golden. But every teacher in the world reads that paragraph and understands 'Kid gets in trouble, parent disagrees, withdraws child from school.' It's a story with a venerable history of precedents. Most kids who get in trouble dispute the justice of their rebuke. Many parents do too, and sometimes they even get so troubled by the thought their child could lose points on their licence that all attempts to convince them otherwise fails. I've seen kids commit grave offences against each other with my own eyes, then boggled as they denied it to my face and to their parents, their faces red with exasperation. I assure you, this is common. No parents wants to believe it, but there it is.


Several paragraphs follow about shoes. Apparently N____ wasn't wearing school uniform so was sent home, and wasn't let back when his new shoes still didn't meet uniform policy, and I'm still reading, waiting for the bit when the school did something wrong and not finding anything. The parent, and apparently the author of the article, from the breathless implied outrage in the tone, has only just heard of uniform codes. How beastly of a school to have such a thing. How unreasonable, for a child not to be allowed to dress as he pleases, to conduct himself in whatever manner fits him best at the time. By the point at which the article describes how he was busted for talking in lessons, I'm wondering why middle-class people hate good behaviour so much.


There's a lovely line from another school, exemplifying the alternative to all this beastly discipline:


'Brendan Loughran, principal of the Darwen Aldridge Community academy in Lancashire, says he visited a number of other similar schools before his school opened in 2008. What he saw in one particularly strict academy disturbed him. "It was overbearing, with sombre-faced children walking in line, heads bowed," he says. "It felt unnatural to me. At Darwen we were clear we had high expectations. But, critically, we gave students involvement and ownership in developing our behaviour policies."


No. No you didn't. Because if you genuinely asked children what rules they wanted and they had said anything that was disagreeable, it would have been overruled. So they weren't involved in anything more than a cosmetic sense. The authority still -- and should still -- lie with the adults. I won't lie to kids about 'agreeing' rules, so I tell them what my rules are, and frankly they're fine with that because it isn't rocket science. I like the line about sombre-faced children though, all those oppressed angels, weeping into their cassocks. 



What doesn't help is when a parent signs up a pupil to a school with a clear behaviour policy, then balks at supporting the school with that policy as soon as it goes against their interests. Sorry, but that isn't how covenants are formed; we abide by them in rain or shine, or we don't make them. Schools cannot run without clear rules, because, simply put, we cannot trust all members to act with civility and altruism. We cannot guarantee an education for pupils if do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, because what some people wilt is to play Angry Birds in exams and wind each other up with slow-witted insults.


The reason this matters -- and it really, really matters -- is that I've seen first hand what happens when behaviour is bad. Lessons dissolve. No learning occurs beyond the bitter lessons of life. It's the state of nature, when the loudest, the boldest and the most aggressive thrive in their hedonic indulgence. You know who suffers most form that scenario? Poor kids. Kids who don't have tutors. Kids who don't have the option of home tutoring. Kids who need the golden ticket of education so badly I will fight for their right to obtain one.


Whenever I read something so anodyne and banal as this, I assume that the authors simply have no idea of how children learn, and how they actually behave in large groups. I assume that they know f*** all about teaching, and I forgive them for their ignorance, but f*** all it is. I don't bug them at their Vikram Hot Yoga and tell them how to salute the Sun, and I don't expect them to tell me how to run a classroom. This isn't a supermarket. We don't aim for customer satisfaction -- we go for the gold of their education whether they like it or not.


The objection seems to me to be entirely ideological or simply narcissistic and egotistical. On one hand you have some people who genuinely seem unable to see authority and direction as anything other than diabolical and tyrannical. That might score a huzzah at a Chumbawumba concert, but on Planet Earth we run our train on tracks and rails. The other reason -- egoism -- is naked self-interest: my child is special, exempt from community rules. Neither are pretty reasons to deny a class an education because some loudmouth treats their peers as an audience rather than a community of equals. They trample on a priceless gift, and one that others can't afford to lose.


So, middle-class people -- is it ok if I teach your child, and others in the same room as them? That would be lovely.