Why the DfE discipline drive is discrimination

Neurodivergent pupils are not being defiant when their behaviour does not conform, warns this autistic teacher

Laura McConnell

Behaviour in schools: The DfE discipline drive is ‘discriminatory and ableist’, warns this autistic teacher

Teachers and parents across England have been gripped this week by the discourse over behaviour in schools, particularly education secretary Gavin Williamson’s comments about the decline of behaviour standards post-pandemic, silent corridor policies and dialogue around the government’s new £10 million Behaviour Hubs.


Background: Gavin Williamson sets out case for 'well-ordered, disciplined classrooms'

Related: Ban mobiles and make corridors silent, says Gavin Williamson

Long read: Should school corridors be given the silent treatment?

Revealed: The experts leading £10m behaviour programme


One talking point was the Department for Education’s video highlighting silent corridor-promoting Bedford Free School as one of the lead schools in the programme. In the video, the CEO of the multi-academy trust that runs the school, Stuart Lock, reports that: “We sweat the small stuff… things that might seem inconsequential on their own, forgetting equipment, perhaps not paying attention for 100 per cent of the time, and perhaps talking off-task. Those things are really taken seriously here.”

In the UK, one in five people is neurodivergent, meaning they are autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic, have ADHD, Tourette’s or another neurodevelopmental condition that causes them to think and act differently to what is the societal norm. The “small stuff” that Lock describes in the DfE video are diagnostic characteristics of these conditions, and part of the biological make-up of neurodivergent children.

Behaviour: Discriminating against neurodivergent pupils

Neurodevelopmental conditions do not come into existence on the same day as a doctor’s diagnosis. They are birth to death conditions. While many schools may claim they have identified their young people with SEND, and that they make reasonable adjustments to their policies where they are required to, evidence shows us that they have only scratched the surface of identification. We know from data that neurodivergence is often diagnosed in adulthood, having been missed in schools, and that many young people are languishing on waiting lists awaiting assessment and diagnosis.

Disabled children are not being defiant or wilfully ignoring school policy when their behaviour does not conform to strict behaviour requirements such as those described. Vocal stimming, vocal tics, impulsive speaking, spontaneously giggling or crying are all natural biological responses in a neurodivergent brain. While some children can suppress and mask these tics and responses, usually to the detriment of their mental health, many cannot.

Forcing neurodivergent children to suppress these behaviours is akin to forcing a child in a wheelchair to stand up and walk unaided.

Ableism is discrimination in favour of people who are not disabled. In the UK, disability is defined under the Equality Act 2010 as “a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”. In Northern Ireland, the definition is the same, but the legislation is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It is a legal obligation for schools to make reasonable adjustments for disabled children, not a favour.

Any behaviour policy that is created around the norms for successful neurotypical children is ableist. Behaviour policies that specify diagnosable characteristics as problematic are discriminatory and have no place in our education system.

Now, more than ever, disability training that includes education law needs to be a standard facet of educational leadership to spare disabled children the trauma of prejudice.

Laura McConnell is an autistic teacher of autistic children, based in Scotland. She tweets @LauraFMcConnell

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Laura McConnell

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