This week, the comment “I have developed a zero tolerance for zero tolerance” popped up on my Twitter feed. The comment resonated completely with my growing distaste for this phrase.
The debate surrounding zero tolerance is not specific to our country – it's also a hot topic in Australia and America, from where it is often quoted as originating. In recent years, American data around the impact of this approach is ringing alarm bells, with researchers highlighting the impact upon standards and the disproportionate exclusion rate for students of colour.
And yet in the UK there seems to be growing calls for zero tolerance: for the approaches that protect the rights of children to be undisturbed by unruly classmates, that reassures no child will get away with low expectations.
Though at first consideration these arguments are beguiling, they are over-simplistic and reductionist.
When I was first appointed as headteacher of my school, I told my new staff and community that there would be zero-tolerance and no excuses – high aspirations would be the order of the day. We introduced a clear behaviour policy with sanctions and rewards identified for specified behaviours, alongside a seven-point classroom discipline system. What could possibly go wrong?
Within a year I'd scrapped the system.
Backed into corners
This is the problem: schools and children are not simple. I didn't acknowledge this and therefore found myself backed into corners having to do things that I knew were counterproductive: sending a child whose home life is chaotic and traumatic away from school and back home was not a good way of improving their behaviour.
Thirteen years later, I can see that this approach spoke more about my insecurities about how I was perceived by children, staff, and parents than it did about effective behaviour management or high standards.
Now, I know that building strong relationships of trust between children, staff and parents is the key to managing behaviour and creating calm environments for learning. So, when new members of staff arrive looking for a clear behaviour management policy, they find one that places relationships front and centre, presents a range of tools for use and expects staff to choose those most appropriate for each child and each circumstance.
It does not make excuses or have low expectations. In fact, it places high expectations on staff to ensure that they meet the needs of individuals in order that every child attains and achieves.
Many of the children who arrive in our schools with angry faces and disengaged attitudes will have experienced trauma within their homes. For them, a highly punitive approach to the challenges that they present is both nonsensical and unkind.
If a child has held their mother on the floor as their father kicks her, or if they have witnessed a drug raid in the house, they are unlikely to enter the classroom with brains ready to learn. If they have reassured a parent rocking in their chair and unable to stop crying for hours through the night, they will probably be too tired to maintain high levels of concentration and frame complex responses to questions. If they have had to wake younger siblings, search through piles of laundry to find unwashed uniform and stop at the shop for packets of crisps for breakfast, before dropping their younger siblings off and then arriving at their own school, it is very unlikely that they themselves will arrive on time and in smart uniform.
I believe that such children should be fed, nurtured and counselled before receiving help to catch up with the work that they have missed. I have no patience for the argument that other children perceive such treatment to be inequitable. Children do not find it difficult to understand that some of their peers need a little additional support, no more than they find it difficult to understand that a child with poor eyesight may require glasses.
There is a growing understanding of the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on our children. If a child experiences more than six ACEs they have a 46 times higher chance of being an intravenous drug abuser, 35 times higher chance of taking their own lives and a 20-year decrease in life expectancy.
Zero tolerance 'unkind'
How many of our "naughty" children are in a state of hyper-vigilance because of the stresses of their lives and how many of our staff can spot the signs of such stress? To expect these children to just get on with it and conform is downright unkind, not just unrealistic. These children need time to talk and explore their feelings before being helped to close any attainment gap. How many of them are instead in isolation units, on managed moves, excluded or home educated, and as a consequence falling further behind, becoming ever more hard to reach?
Is it liberal and wishy-washy to ask that schools are kind? I hope that my school reflects the words of the poet AA Malee who says: “Ah, kindness, what a simple way to tell another struggling soul that there is love to be found in this world.”
The unkindness within education may be driven by punitive high stakes accountability systems that incentivise schools to remove children least likely to achieve and impede the attainment of others. But, the promotion of zero tolerance in schools leaves me asking what is happening to our nation’s lost children?
Are they falling victim to a system overly concerned with appearances, proud of being hard on offenders, taking revenge on the vulnerable? Rather than a ruthless enforcement of zero tolerance, I would prefer our schools to reflect the words of Shakespeare in As You Like It – “Kindness, nobler ever than revenge.”
Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, winner of creative school of the year at the 2017 Tes Schools Awards