Where discipline is a dirty word

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

The discipline problem at Robert Peal’s school is depressingly normal:

A survey last October for the Guardian Teacher Network — hardly a bastion of old-fashioned disciplinarians — found that 40 per cent of teachers complained of being bullied by pupils and, of those who considered quitting, 50 per cent named pupil behaviour as the reason. A 2010 National Union of Teachers (NUT) survey found that 92 per cent of teachers believed pupil behaviour had worsened over the course of their career, and 79 per cent claimed that they were unable to teach effectively because of poor behaviour. During the last school year, 44 teachers were hospitalised with severe injuries from pupil attacks at a five-year high. Perhaps most worryingly of all, a 2008 Policy Exchange report showed that the atrocious reputation of British schools for poor behaviour was the main factor in deterring new graduates from becoming teachers.

Despite the recent arrival of an energetic new head, my school’s results remain stubbornly unimpressive. It is strikingly obvious to me and many of my colleagues that the fundamental impediment to pupils learning is a lack of classroom discipline. However, when I suggested this to a member of senior management at a training session, he winced at the very word “discipline”. “Right,” he said swallowing uncomfortably, “behaviour for learning” — this being the trendy euphemism, modishly abbreviated to B4L, favoured by schools too right-on to use the D-word. How, I wondered to myself, did British education get to a state where discipline is a dirty word?

In an essay on education written in 1961, the political theorist Hannah Arendt foresaw the steady erosion of discipline in Western schools. She wrote: “The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” If this was a problem in 1961, it is a catastrophe in 2012.

Since Arendt wrote her essay, legions of progressive educators have denied the need for authority in schools. The permissive rhetoric of 1960s radicalism was particularly influential among teachers, and their ideological precepts were applied to classroom culture. The undisputed leader of this “progressive” movement in Britain was A.S. Neill, founder of the revolutionary Summerhill School. Neill documented his philosophy in his 1962 book Summerhill, a runaway success which sold more than two million copies. In it he claimed, “I believe that to impose anything by authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion — his own opinion — that it should be done.”

After the 1960s, radical educationists who subscribed to this thinking began their long march through the institutions. The idea of child-led learning came to dominate our teacher-training colleges and classrooms. Such thinking claimed that teachers should never coerce pupils to learn against their will, but instead place them in a situation where they can learn for themselves. The favoured description of a teacher’s job changed from “teaching” to “facilitating”. The rhetoric of child-led education was, and still is, extremely seductive, but it has failed to deliver. It is premised upon a fatally misplaced assumption that pupils can be relied upon to know what is best for them. The practical consequence of this utopian thinking has been the consistent fall in standards of British state education.

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, British comprehensive schools gained their reputation for ill-discipline and low expectations.

It sounds like the problem is… ill-discipline and low expectations.

The paradox which afflicts schools such as mine is that when teachers are relaxed on discipline, discipline becomes their overriding concern. In strict schools where rules are consistently enforced, pupils know the expectations for their behaviour and teachers can focus on teaching. In schools where discipline is relaxed, ensuring good behaviour becomes an all-consuming battle.

Leave a Reply