Correctional facility

"For Heaven's sake catch me before I kill more," Chicago's notorious Lipstick Killer was alleged to have scrawled on the wall of a victim's bedroom. "I cannot control myself." Taunt? Or an admission of powerlessness? Judges' sentences hang on such matters: the chair for the former, a padded cell for the latter. But the same drama plays out in microcosm in the classroom. Who is to blame for bad behaviour?

On one hand, it seems obvious: the agent of the behaviour. On the other, we are clearly (at least in part) the product of our upbringing. Many of our actions are habit and instinct, not decision. So: soil or seed?

I recently met some governors who had curious ideas about behaviour. I told them that I thought bad behaviour in lessons was one of the biggest challenges facing education today. They pursed their lips so completely they could have licked the skin from a silver bullet.

"You can't call it bad behaviour," they said. "That makes it sound as if the child is responsible for their actions. And it also paints their behaviour in a very negative light." I've heard this a lot over the years in my role as a behaviour adviser. I am happy to entertain debate in this area but I think that such people are essentially a bit dim.

I was once told by a table of therapists and educational psychologists that telling a child off was the "worst thing I could do" because it would damage their self-esteem. I've been told that I mustn't tell little Billy or Sanjeet or Lukasz that what they did was "bad" because that would burden them with my moral prejudices. I know that in some strands of theology we are encouraged to hate the sin and love the sinner, but this is warp 10 cognitive dissonance.

I do recognise that such people are well-meaning. But in education, who isn't? And there's a special circle in Hell for people who ruin children's opportunities with platitudes.

The children who have the fewest boundaries at home are usually the ones who need them most at school; it is perhaps the only place where they will be encouraged to learn good habits of character and attitude. These kids need an adult who cares enough to tell them when they're doing something wrong - not merely for some retributive point but to modify their future behaviour and their futures.

Children need careful midwifery to deliver them into adulthood. That's part of our job, not just as teachers but as adults. I once sat in a parental meeting with the cruellest bully in school and his father (a homeopath), who excused his boy's thuggery as a product of moving home - 10 years ago.

We don't always act the way we mean to. I know that some people have genuine disabilities of character that require support to amend. But if you absolve someone of their responsibility, you revoke your ability to make moral judgements about their actions. We are our actions. We own them. As long as we believe in free will (and our whole society is predicated on its existence) then that is how we treat people: as moral, free agents, not as helpless, brainless automatons.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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