Empty show of force

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Authoritarian approaches to school discipline create little more than a sideshow of control, argues Paul Dix

I am sickened by insidious suggestions that discipline can be "enforced". From heads suggesting school leaders act like Dirty Harry, to calls to bring in the Army and hints that teachers might (again) grab hold of children who disrupt lessons.

A more aggressive response to poor behaviour is being encouraged. It appeals to a primal and emotional urge, to the ignorant, unenlightened and ugliest right-wing traditions. It suits their purpose to pretend behaviour change is not built on relationships, but pure unadulterated control.

Standing up when the teacher walks in is a good example. This does not change behaviour; it just further emphasises the division between teachers and pupils. It is a sham - a pantomime of false respect played out in classrooms that are never replicated in the adult world.

I stood up when my teachers came in the room. I never thought twice about it. It was habit, a minor inconvenience. It did not stop me telling the aggressive ones to "fuck off". It did not make me trust, like or respect them. Why do we put up with this ridiculous pretence that doffing your cap to authority makes you behave better? It teaches hierarchy, not personal discipline.

"Tough guy" heads get their needs met. They rarely meet the needs of the most damaged children. As they showboat with politicians, they pretend all that is needed is the biggest roar. The truth behind the public relations is often that the most difficult pupils are shoved into other schools.

In the brave new world of 1950s behaviour management, those who will not do as they are told are shunned with unpalatable enthusiasm. Control, discipline and force are the hardy perennials of populist politicians. When are we going to shout about humanity, respect and kindness with the same vigour? What kind of models of the adult world are we encouraged to be? What kind of seeds are we told to plant?

When I raised the question of behaviour with a leading Swedish educationalist, Anders Hultin, he was shocked that it was even an issue in the UK. It certainly is not in Swedish schools. And I do not recall seeing boot camps, Portakabins for the "naughties", segregation cells or screaming sergeant-majors in Dutch, French or Spanish schools. I see mutual respect, equal status, excellent relationships, personal discipline, care and love.

The British insistence on enforced discipline leaves us in reverse gear as other nations speed away. Encouraging schools to return to "them and us" cultures, based on a rose-tinted view of the past, just makes us appear unable to learn.

The best school behaviour policy I have read starts with the line, "All children at this school will be treated with unconditional respect by all adults." That is a "zero tolerance" policy I can work with. It is the same sentiment that the governor of an outstanding secure training centre I visited repeated; the same message every head of a pupil referral unit I have ever met has echoed.

The answer does not lie in demanding respect by using physical or emotional battle tactics, but with a consistency that treats children with absolute respect, not as second-class citizens. Children who struggle with their behaviour do not follow rules; they follow people.

Academies do not have a preserve on transforming schools with behaviour problems, although they are known for doing so. They use their change of status to create new consistencies and expectations. New buildings, rules and uniforms give staff a chance to change their own behaviour. It is a useful springboard, but it is not the rebranding or reclothing that change behaviour. What has changed is the behaviour of the adults.

When staff, as one, change their behaviour, they can have a transformational influence on the behaviour of all individuals in a school and the way an institution behaves. With or without physical changes, a change to a consistent model of staff behaviour is irresistible as it can bind everyone together in language, attitude and approach.

If everyone around you expects you to succeed, it is hard to swim against the tide. A truly consistent response to poor behaviour is born out of tough conversations and hard-fought agreements. A single A4 sheet that outlines the agreed changes in staff behaviour is far more useful than the behaviour policy gathering dust in the admin office. Bind staff together with the songsheet they will all sing from, convince them actively to change their behaviour as a consistent mass and you can have control without anger, discipline without brutality.

Paul Dix is managing director of Pivotal Education. www.pivotaleducation.com.

Find him on Twitter @PivotalPaul


Next week's TESpro will contain a special report on what schools can learn from the Army ...

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