Skip to main content

And now for the behaviour debate Part 1

By 6th July 2020Blog

The behaviour debate in education is one that never goes away or change very much. I suppose that is hardly surprising. It is a debate that ties into all sorts of fundamental conflicts and links to much bigger discussions about philosophy, beliefs and culture. I think we might get greater clarity if we were prepared to engage with all of these elements.

I recently read Tom Holland’s  splendid book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind,

It is a history of Christianity and the impact that it has had on the development of western civilisation and the western mind. The ongoing controversy that runs throughout the book is how we deal with dissent and with sin. Do we forgive or do we punish?

Is Christianity about the acceptance of people and the commitment to making them better people than they might otherwise be or do we just hope that we are part of the “elect” and  use inquisitions and crusades against those who are not?

All of that may seem a long way from a discussion about school exclusions or isolation booths, but it is fundamental.  What we believe about children will dictate how we believe they should be treated. If we believe that every child deserves to be understood and supported that will lead us to one way of dealing with behaviour.  If we believe that some, or all, of them need to be controlled and threatened into acceptable behaviour, that will lead us to a very different approach

In education, the debate is often no more complex than “do we deal with the behaviour or do we deal with the child?”  Do we seek to understand and forgive, or punish and condemn, or somewhere in between? Advocates of a zero tolerance approach to discipline are in no doubt about the answer to that question. They are committed to linking a tariff to an action and then demanding that tariff be imposed whenever that action or behaviour occurs, with no exceptions.  For them, the needs of the organisation are paramount. They can argue that it is good for the child to learn that certain behaviours are unacceptable in other contexts and that they need to learn conformity. They also argue that the needs of the majority of children must be the highest priority, but the prime justification for them is the organisation’s need for order.

Imagine if that thinking were to be extended to the criminal justice system.

There would be no need for judges, no concept of clemency and no place for a Violence Reduction Unit. The Howard League for Penal Reform would have to pack its tents and move on.  There is a reason why we talk about a criminal justice system and not just a penal system.

Nonetheless, the view that we require absolute consistency is widespread in education. It is often accompanied by a sense that, at worst, chaos would ensue and, at the very least, achievement would suffer unless we have a strict code and powerful sanctions.

When I started teaching, corporal punishment was still legal and widely used. The same sorts of voices that encourage us towards zero tolerance were, then, encouraging us to believe that the removal of the belt would be the harbinger of anarchy and that schools would shortly be the set for Clockwork Orange. Oddly enough, we coped.

One of the ways that we coped was by establishing Guidance and Pastoral Care. We took a more positive approach based on trying to understand why children and young people act as they do before we decide what the appropriate response to their behaviour should be. I don’t think am not aware that anyone is arguing that any behaviour that can be explained, has to be tolerated.

Opponents of zero tolerance are not advocates of unlimited tolerance within organisations.

We have seen the pitfalls of inconsistency where young people have no idea what is expected of them and are confused as they have to recalibrate their behaviour whenever they encounter different teachers with different expectations and standards. We have read about some of the car crashes that resulted when tolerance did lapse into anarchy. Mikey Cuddihy’s book,, is a real warning of where another absolutist approach was deployed in Summerhill. In her case it was closer to indulgence and a million miles from zero tolerance and it was deeply damaging. Most of us want something closer to the idea of “flexible tolerance” which was advanced in a recent Times Educational Supplement article,,  which I will return to in my next blog.

In simple terms, expectations are made clear, but staff have the scope, like a judge, to decide how to deal with situations where these expectations are not met. Stephen Lane, a head of year and author of “Beyond Wiping Noses: Building an informed approach to pastoral leadership in schools”, captures the basis of the approach well.

“Schools absolutely should be a safe space for children, where all children can be nourished in order to thrive. However, a large part of that nourishment is actually learning how to participate as a member of a community. Ultimately, we all need to understand how to operate within the parameters of the various communities to which we belong. Children need the support of clearly defined structures in order to develop this understanding

There is a risk that children will seek to exploit differences between teachers where “flexibilty” exists. They may be confused about the parameters if the response to breaching them is mixed, but surely that is not a reason for teachers to give up on their professionalism in terms of how they manage situations. We have rejected blind justice in the court system, why would we make different choices in schools. It is a choice that can work if we are clear about what we believe, what we expect and if we are ready to explain what we do.

Alison Cameron

Author Alison Cameron

More posts by Alison Cameron

Leave a Reply