Zero tolerance dictatorships...

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Too many people seem to think that schools should be run as dictatorships rather than as empathic systems reflecting the kind of society we want to live in

Schools are run on rules. From the moment we welcome pupils through the doors – even before they join full-time in first year – they are told what they must and must not do.

Arrive on time, bring the right equipment, don’t run in the corridors, don’t chew gum, keep mobile phones switched off etc etc. Many of these reflect societal norms, most have developed to maintain good order in the classroom and around the school and, increasingly, some have been suggested by pupils to help them and their peers with their learning.

There is no problem with rules. We live by them in society and, often, when I am talking to pupils about why they have broken certain rules, I quote those I have to abide by in my job and the ones they will have to adhere to as they go through life.

These are important lessons they must learn about how to play a role as responsible citizens.

But what is important is not necessarily the rule itself but what happens when it is broken. Do we exploit the situation as a learning experience or do we just punish in the hope of getting a different result next time around (when, often, experience tells us this will not be the case)?

As I read through educational debates on the matter it is obvious that, as with most issues which attract political input at the present time, we are becoming increasingly polarised as to how we think we should deal with it.

On one side lie the bleeding-heart liberals who see all rule-breaking as a cry for help requiring overly sympathetic handling and, on the other, are the fascists who see anything less than rigid compliance with Victorian ideas of bringing up children as a breakdown in the fabric of society.

As a headteacher in Scotland I would side myself more with the former than the latter, although tempered with the need to ensure the good running of the school.

I read with despair of some schools in England where children are made to march in silent single-file from one classroom to the next, where they are punished merely for turning around briefly in class and – in one case – where a boy was given a detention for saying thank you for his lunch in a non-talking dinner queue. These are not schools I would want to be a part of.

Where is the humanity in these places? And where is the desire to deal with pupils on an individual basis (which is inherent in the educational understanding of Scotland’s Getting it Right for Every Child policy). How can such a dictatorial system address the increasing mental health and wellbeing problems evident in our young people, especially those who, through ridiculously chaotic home environments, have little control over their behaviour in school?

One school counters claims of intolerance by saying that running through everything is a message of kindness and gratitude – one that underlies its philosophy of teaching and learning. However, I fail to see how this fits with the punitive regime under which it operates if the teachers who are role models do not display this kindness in their day-to-day dealings with pupils.

I also find it concerning that many of the teachers who impose these rules are relatively young and new to teaching and seem to be coming into the profession with the view that schools should be run as dictatorships rather than as empathic systems which should aspire to the kind of society we want rather than the divisive one in which we currently live.

In my own school we have lots of rules but, I would hope, there is flexibility to deal with children as individuals and to work on improving behaviour with more understanding of the underlying causes.
We have booths in our time-out room where pupils carry out meaningful work and reflect on their choices in silence, facing a wall for anything from two to six periods. However, with the room doubling up as our study space, they are surrounded by our sixth years role-modelling good behaviour in getting on with their studies in a quiet environment.

Crucial to the pupils re-engaging with class is the requirement for them to discuss their behaviour with their teacher, principal teacher or senior leader at the end of their period of time-out.

As with most things in a school, consistency is the key to getting this right and it doesn’t always work. For the most part, however, it can be successful with pupils reflecting on the choices they have made and the rest of the class and the teacher being able to get on with learning and teaching.

This system, relying as it does on a mix of sanction and restorative practice, may not fit perfectly with recent behaviour programmes such as those advocated in publications like When the Adults Change, Everything Changes (Dix, 2017), but it is popular with teachers and works for the majority of pupils.

For those for whom it doesn’t work, extra help and support is provided by behavioural specialists, external partners, mentors and others, both within and outside the school. In both approaches there is a trade-off between the needs of the pupil concerned and those of the rest of the school.

Working in a school located in an area of multiple deprivation, one of the things that concerns me most is the discrimination which seems to be inherent in the zero tolerance approach. From the examples I have seen it appears to be a technique mostly in use in poor areas, those consisting of high levels of Black and ethnic minority pupils.

While these children are taught that conformity and compliance to a rules-based system not of their making is the only way to lift them from poverty, those in more affluent areas live with more freedom and tolerance where questioning authority – while possibly not encouraged – is at least not always handled punitively.

The products of both these systems will be those who populate our society in the future and we constantly need to question what kind of a society we want this to be and what is the best way to see it through to fruition.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School. Read his previous articles for SecEd at

Further information

Getting it Right for Every Child, Scottish government:


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