Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for eighteen years, firstly of a Lincolnshire grammar school which he led to “outstanding” and secondly of an academy in Hackney, sited on one of the largest and most deprived council estates in the UK, which he “transformed” (Ofsted 2017). He now runs his own consultancy, specialising in school improvement [Tim Clark Educational]. Here he argues that far from stifling educational progress, school discipline is a necessary part of school life and essential for allowing all pupils to participate fully.
The debate about school discipline [traditional vs modern, conservative vs liberal, authoritarian vs child-centred] has a long history, but it has resurfaced in recent years as several academies and free schools have chosen to nail their colours very firmly to the traditional mast. For their detractors, these schools are nothing more than boot camps, insisting on discipline and rules for the sake of discipline and rules, whilst for their proponents, they are providing a stable and purposeful environment (often lacking at home) in which youngsters can grow and develop.
When I took over the headship of my second school, pupil behaviour was appalling – kids swearing at staff (even senior staff) was a frequent occurrence, group work or practical work in class was almost impossible, and the school roll was falling as parents witnessed poor pupil behaviour in the streets. As a consequence, staff morale was rock bottom (most felt they could not teach, only childmind, and some admitted to actually feeling nervous about going to work) and the standards achieved were depressingly low.
The rule of law and fairness reigned, not the most aggressive or unpleasant youngster. The philosophy is the same as Sir Robert Peel’s on founding the Metropolitan Police
My first action on taking over, was to institute a new, clear and zero tolerance behaviour policy, which was predicated on a few key points – no child had the right to disrupt the learning of others, everyone should show respect for everyone else, and pupils would do what they were told by staff the first time – an instruction should not have to be repeated. Behaviour in lessons was immediately “transformed” (Ofsted 2017) by the introduction of a ‘one warning only rule’: a pupil would only receive one warning to stop being silly and, if he/she carried on, would be sanctioned (detention, stand in the corridor etc). If the child was badly behaved a third time, he/she was removed from the lesson, and would spend the rest of the day (or next day) in the isolation room, receive a same night detention and would have a letter sent home warning of more serious consequences to follow should the pupil’s behaviour not improve. More serious misdemeanours (rudeness to staff, blatant defiance, any form of violence, bullying, theft or bringing something illegal to school) resulted in a one-week exclusion/suspension; if the offence was repeated, the exclusion/suspension would be for longer and if it occurred again, the pupil would leave the school. Interestingly, very few pupils were suspended a second time. The rule of law and fairness reigned, not the most aggressive or unpleasant youngster. The philosophy is the same as Sir Robert Peel’s on founding the Metropolitan Police: “I want to teach people that liberty does not consist of having your home robbed by organised gangs of thieves” [source: Sky HISTORY UK]. The point to emphasis here is that in a well-disciplined environment, where what is expected of everyone is absolutely clear and those expectations are maintained and enforced, then teachers can teach and pupils can learn.
Did I establish a boot camp, was this a school where pupils felt downtrodden and repressed? Absolutely not. Our roll began to rise so that we became an oversubscribed school of choice, pupils felt happier, safer and began to enjoy lessons much more as they began to achieve more; attendance and GCSE results were consistently above national average (in some cases, significantly so) [the predecessor school’s results had been some of the lowest in the Borough] and staff morale became a strength, as did staff/student relations. We created a purposeful, disciplined environment in which all pupils could achieve, regardless of background or ability.
Everyone was expected to be pleasant to everyone else: rather than specifically identifying racism, sexism or homophobia (on the very few occasions that they did occur), unpleasantness was dealt with as ‘bullying’
Whilst the behaviour policy was of crucial importance (a copy was sent to all parents in the summer holiday before I took over and it was made clear that it applied to all pupils, without exception) it cannot be seen in isolation. The School also developed an enviable reputation for the care and support it offered – we were the only School in the Borough to employ a full-time and fully-qualified nurse and a full-time fully-qualified counsellor, and the comprehensive rewards policy provided public recognition for those who worked hard and contributed to the life and soul of the school community. More than anything, our commitment to the development of the whole person gave the School a unique, challenging and engaging buzz. All Year 7 pupils were provided with a musical instrument and received weekly instrumental lessons and ensemble coaching, free of charge, whilst all Year 10 pupils were prepared for the Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award (the Gold was offered in the sixth form) – more pupils achieved the Bronze Award each year than from practically any other school in London, and more than from all the other schools in the Borough added together. The vibrant offer of sport, music, drama, art and trips etc was a key component in improving engagement and enhancing the ethos. But a similar atmosphere was equally achieved in many lessons – dynamic teaching and a broad curriculum enabled many to enjoy success. The development of practical and vocational subjects in the senior school, equipped many who could not succeed in more academic subjects, to progress to college or worthwhile employment. The motto, “Be the best you can” (dreamt up by a pupil) was a tangible reality.
One of the great attractions of the School was the diversity of both the pupils and staff in terms of ethnicity, culture and language – an attraction and a strength. Bullying, racism and unpleasantness were extremely rare, partly because when incidents did occur they were dealt with immediately and, if necessary, severely, but also because of the ethos of the School. Everyone was expected to be pleasant to everyone else: rather than specifically identifying racism, sexism or homophobia (on the very few occasions that they did occur), unpleasantness was dealt with as ‘bullying’ – no one had a right to make life unpleasant for anyone else. The uniform as rigidly enforced, with no cultural exceptions (only religious exceptions such as a headscarf), so that everyone identified with the School community. (A smart uniform is also, of course, a tremendous leveller – everyone looks the same, regardless of socio-economic background, and will be treated the same.) Of course, some will rail that such a policy stifles individualism and personal expression; nothing could be further from the truth: by preventing youngsters from being different because of their hairstyle, piercings or clothes, we encouraged them to exhibit real individualism on the page, in the classroom, on the sports field, in a performance or by simply being honest and decent members of the community.
[W]hat Francis ultimately argues, is that we can build a much more mature and creative relationship with pupils, which is beyond simply trying to contain and control them.
In 1975 a teacher, Paul Francis, published a study of school discipline entitled, ‘Beyond Control?’ (Allen and Unwin, 1975). The opening chapter describes how an inexperienced teacher loses control of a difficult class and you are lulled into thinking that this is the reality of contemporary schools. But what Francis ultimately argues, is that we can build a much more mature and creative relationship with pupils, which is beyond simply trying to contain and control them. This is not, however, some woolly liberal ideal: in order to achieve this mature relationship, you must first ensure, “the petty details [are] taken care of, the atmosphere [is] set and the systems established”. I could not agree more: once the tone is set, the rules and expectations made absolutely clear and it is fully understood that these rules and expectations apply to everyone, without exception, then a happy and successful school community is the end product. Good discipline facilitates freedom and individuality.