The structured rebel

22nd July 2016 at 00:00
A TES survey of under-11s found that children place a high value on pushing the boundaries of social and school rules. Rather than clamping down on such behaviour, heads and academics are advising schools to do the opposite. Jon Severs finds out why

Getting away with something at school that one knows is wrong; there’s something just delicious about the thought of doing that, isn’t there?”

Richard Bullard, headteacher at Combe Down Primary School, near Bath, is attempting to explain the major theme that has arisen from a TES survey of around 2,500 4- to 11-year-olds. We asked them what every child should experience in school before the age of 11, excluding anything traditionally academic or subject based, and among the more random choices – “Have a wasp in the classroom”, for example, which we can all spend some time analysing later – there is a clear trend: the under-11s of the UK put a lot of value on doing things that are a little bit naughty.

More than a third of the suggestions, which have been compiled into a list of 100 things every child should experience at school before the age of 11 (see attached poster), would usually be followed by at least a polite ticking off. For example: “fall asleep in a lesson”, “run around a corridor corner and smash into a teacher”, “kick a ball over a wall”, “forget your homework”, “fall off a chair because you are swinging on it”, “Have a huff and get in a mood” and “laugh hysterically when someone farts”. One particular entry puts it most succinctly: “Get told off”.

It is childish pranks and silliness that dominate the pupils' list

Certain members of society – and indeed the teaching profession – may decry this as evidence of a school system in need of tougher sanctions and a tougher approach to the causes of sanctions (to paraphrase former prime minister Tony Blair). But not Bullard. He not only sees the appeal of playing up, but believes that it is an important part of a child’s development. Other headteachers agree. These indiscretions – the ones that are minor and not malicious – are important, they argue, if children are to forge an individual path and know where boundaries lie.

Child development experts see a lot of sense in that explanation, but they also issue a warning. The list supports ongoing research that suggests children are trying to forge their independence earlier than the education system expects. Primary schools aren’t currently set up for that, they argue, and that leads to a cliff edge of autonomy at the age of 12 that too many children are toppling over.

Daisy-chain reaction

Not all of the 100 must-have school experiences for under-11s are about pushing the boundaries. The most common suggestion from the different schools involved – a group that included maintained, independent and alternative provision schools – was that old favourite, “call a teacher mum or dad” (each school provided 25 experiences, and the most popular made the list – see box, “Student reactions”, below).

Also popular was “get a certificate” – suggesting material rewards remain highly valued; “playing conkers” and “making a daisy chain” – proving that computer games have not destroyed ancient playground rituals; and the delightful “giggle” – confirming that children would rather not be turned into learning robots, if at all possible.

Indeed, many of the experiences reflected a desire to experience the joy of exploration and discovery: “invent something”; “run around in the rain”; “go pond dipping” and “find out about different cultures”.

For many of the leaders of the schools involved, these entries were read with relief: they feel that it confirms they are getting primary schooling right and that their conviction that school cannot be all about tests and ticked boxes is shared by the students.

“Most of this list made me laugh and brought back fond memories of my childhood at school,” says Matt Middlemore, headteacher at Tregolls School in Truro, Cornwall. “It’s important that children can look back on their primary years, as we do today, with a smile.”

“The list reminds us that schools are more than educational experiences,” adds Alice Edgington, deputy headteacher at St Stephen’s School in Canterbury. “We are not just teachers, but nurturers and facilitators, too. And we have the privilege of sometimes being able to participate in the things listed: after all, who doesn’t love to ‘choreograph a dance in the playground’?”

Simon Knight, deputy headteacher at Frank Wise School, a special school in Banbury, adds that what particularly pleased him was that the same elements were valued by children in mainstream and special education.

“It is noticeable that much of what is described transcends the divide between mainstream or special schools, suggesting perhaps that for most children there is more similarity than difference in what they want to have achieved before they are 11,” he explains.

The under-11s of Great Britain don’t just want to enjoy themselves, though; what also strikes the school leaders involved is the maturity and the concern for others the list highlights. “Be kind to someone who needs a friend”, “make a card for someone special”, and “learn how to get on with everyone” demonstrate that the children’s understanding of emotion and how society operates can be pretty advanced. This mix of innocence and maturity is a joy to behold, says Vivian Hill, director of professional educational psychology training at the UCL Institute of Education.

“It is delightful to see both the combination of simple childhood pleasures and the development of an awareness of increasing social responsibility,” she explains.

Dennis Guiney, an education psychologist who has worked in multiple schools, agrees.

“I was heartened to read this list, which is mature in a reflective way you may not at first expect and at the same time delights in childish pranks and silliness,” he says.

But while innocent joys are plentiful and maturity is certainly prominent – other examples being “Be a leader of a group”; “Learn basic first aid and how to dial 999” – it is the childish pranks and silliness, or rather the general pushing of both the social and the behaviour boundaries, that dominate.

Spinning around

In addition to the entries listed earlier in this category, there are also suggestions ranging from the daring of “spin on the teacher’s chair” and “pretend to be the teacher”, to the challenge of “fail so that you can improve on your mistakes” and the bravery to “come into school with a new haircut”.

As Bullard says, none of these things are about deliberately flouting social or school rules – no one is advocating failing on purpose, stealing the teacher’s chair or giving someone else a new haircut – but there is a desire to push at where these students feel the boundaries lie – to challenge the requirement to always be successful, the authority of the teacher and the need to conform to social norms on things like haircuts.

And teachers need to react with a degree of flexibility to these forays into foreign territory, he says.

“It seems to me that the older a child gets, the more inclined they are to push boundaries and, as long as it isn’t malicious, any teacher worth their salt will laugh it off with the understanding that it was a bit of a joke and that it won’t be funny a second time,” he explains. “These little moments, if handled well, can help to create a bond. While not encouraging things, one must expect them to happen and, after all, developing a sense of humour but knowing when to stop is a vital tool for life.”

Middlemore agrees: “Schools need to be a fun place where children can feel confident enough to push the boundaries and be children.”

What you should not do, these heads suggest, is adopt the no-excuses zero tolerance approach increasingly popular in education, which provides no room to make these incursions safely. Serious or repeated issues need to be stamped out, of course, but the process of pushing boundaries is a natural one, they argue, and demands a degree of understanding and flexibility.

Child development experts confirm that children of this age group are increasingly seeking their own path in the world and that this often manifests in actions that dip a toe across perceived lines of acceptability.

“Children go through various stages of psychological development during childhood,” explains Professor Steve Peters, a consultant forensic psychiatrist and author of The Chimp Paradox. “Simply speaking, in their first few years they struggle to find who is in charge, so we often use phrases like the ‘terrible twos’. This can be a struggle for power. In later childhood, testing of the rules, establishing self-ability and discovering how the world ticks come into play. Children learn how far they can push the limits in all aspects and also what the consequences are for crossing the line.”

“They are asserting themselves as individuals, they desire to be the instigator, not the passive receiver,” adds Hill. “So broadly, it’s positive that children want to do this.”

The school’s role in that process, though, is slightly more contentious. Lorinne Mahar is a child behaviour specialist who works in schools in both the UK and the US. She agrees that children push the boundaries as part of their natural development into adults, but sees the teacher’s role as a guard to protect those barriers, not necessarily to allow them to flex or be pushed through altogether.

“Boundaries are what allow us to live in a (mostly) law-abiding society and boundaries give us the ability to make informed choices and cope well with life,” she says. “It is a child’s job to push the boundaries, and it is the job of parents and teachers to reinforce them.”

Rules for living

Hill and Peters take a different view. They say that the job of schools is not to crush rebellion or even, necessarily, to simply flex the rules to allow discovery. What they believe is needed is for schools to structure the natural development of the child so the child doesn’t feel the need to flout the rules in the first place.

“Underpinning the pushing of the limits is always the need for security,” explains Peters. ”The drive to do these things is strong and necessary. What we can do is to encourage this experimentation and exploration in a constructive and managed way, thereby helping children to fulfil these development drives.”

Hill says that, currently, many primary schools do not do this. She argues that the list’s pre-occupation with naughty behaviour should act as a warning: the children are seeking autonomy and the only outlet they have is to try and act contrary to the rules of the school.

This links into Hill’s current research project, which focuses on the “cliff edge” that comes with primary-to-secondary transition.

It's positive that children want to push the behaviour boundaries

“I am currently researching adolescent neglect,” she explains. “In childhood, you have this very structured environment where there is little autonomy, but there comes a point at 11 or 12 when that structure falls away and there is an expectation that the child will be autonomous, so should make their own decisions and structure their own lives rather than have it structured for them. There is this cliff edge. Children find that incredibly unsettling and difficult.”

Her argument is that the under-11s tend to have most of their decisions made and have their lives largely structured for them. With the onset of the early teens, the assumption is that these children can suddenly do it all for themselves.

“If you take the two together – the list’s demonstrating the desire to push boundaries from a young age and my current research – you get a sense that perhaps primary schools should be doing much more to gradually introduce independence in a productive way,” says Hill.

She concedes that some primary schools are already making progress – they have statements of the rights for children and there is an acknowledgement that the Victorian belief that children should be seen and not heard is out of date.

“Schools are starting to be aware that they have to gradually increase a child’s autonomy and give them more of a voice,” she says.

But she feels teachers and others in education need to discuss more broadly how they might be better at doing this so that children don’t hit that cliff edge and topple over, and so they don’t feel the need to assert themselves in less productive ways as demonstrated on the list.

The purpose of education

The list itself gives some clues as to how this might be done. Residentials, school trips, leading the class, becoming more confident to talk in front of others – these are all valued. With tighter budgets and the pressure of accountability, however, the first two are increasingly tricky to facilitate.

“The list speaks of what education can really be about, free from reference to Ofsted, government, targets and assessment – essential though they may be,” says Guiney.

Schools also may fear something going wrong on these trips and getting bad press or even being sued as a result.

But Bullard says these fears have no basis in reality. His school, Combe Down, would be one Hill would describe as giving children independence, as Bullard insists on taking children out of their comfort zone and to residentials.

“Residentials are vital in helping children develop greater independence, organisational skills, teamwork and learning to understanding others,” he argues. “Trips should revolve around activities that enable children to challenge themselves. Just because something is risky doesn’t mean you don’t do it – a pre-visit risk assessment means you can do these things safely.”

It’s a view Mike Fairclough, headteacher at 2015 TES primary school of the year West Rise Junior School, applies in high profile and extreme ways. He takes his children shooting, flint-knapping, fire building, bronze smelting and the students manage herds of buffalo, too.

“It is about trusting children to manage themselves,” he says. “We let them be autonomous on the marsh [the school has a marsh next door that it rents from the local council] – they are able to make decisions, have their voice, be a leader. We very rarely have any behaviour issues, because their desire to find their own path is fulfilled in a controlled way elsewhere.”

Most heads say that, given the chance, they would love to do things like this at their school. What stops them, they say, is accountability pressures, time constraints and money.

So perhaps the problem is not with schools. Perhaps the government could be clearer about endorsing schools to facilitate that autonomy; to clarify that independent learning should apply for more than academic objectives and to find and make room for that where possible.

Commendably, even without such backing, and despite the increasing pressure to squeeze primary education to be ever more academic, the list demonstrates schools still manage to be a wondrous and enticing place.

“The list speaks of exuberance and fun and working hard and caring for others,” says Guiney. “What a wonderful testament to our teachers.”

With thanks to the schools that took part in this feature: Bridge Learning Campus, Bristol; Carnegie Primary School, Fife, Scotland; Carmyle Primary School, Scotland; Combe Down Primary School, Somerset; Dunhurst, Bedales School, Hampshire Frank Wise School, Banbury; Hope School, Wigan; Dunhurst, Hampshire; Hillside Primary School, Dundee, Scotland; Pallister Park Primary School, Middlesbrough; Rosley C of E School, Cumbria; Rowlandale Integrated Primary School, Northern Ireland; Solihull School, Solihull; St Andrews Catholic School, London; St Francis of Assisi School, Northern Ireland; St Stephen’s School, Canterbury; Tregolls School, Truro, Cornwall, Ysgol Esgob Morgan, Wale


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