No to zero tolerance

Written by: Mark Wilson | Published:
Mark Wilson, chief executive officer, Wellspring Academy Trust
Some excellent suggestions for alternative (and more useful) measures of school effectiveness in ...

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Zero tolerance and ‘positive discipline’ are resulting in huge spikes in the number of exclusions. There must be another way...

When discussing the needs of a group of students with SEN, a headteacher from a large multi-academy trust (MAT) in the North of England took my breath away.

He explained how students feel when “someone is treated differently to them”. He said this was an important reason to maintain his school’s rigid Behaviour Policy with everyone, irrespective of need.

It appeared that, in his view, a zero tolerance school approach was a democratic entitlement for all. There would be no adjustments, reasonable or otherwise.

We know that this approach has taken root in many schools, particularly in secondary education. We know that some individuals and MATs have built reputations for themselves, sponsored by government and others, on the back of the “positive discipline” doctrine.

All point to a long line of successful Ofsted judgements and exam results. All speak with great passion about their relentless drive for excellence for every child in their care – and yet I cannot help but feel concerned.

The concern is that “positive discipline”, zero tolerance and a relentless focus on standards is not an appropriate fit for all. It is doctrine that, rather than achieving solutions in-house, passports problems onto others in the system.

And this approach is resulting in huge spikes in the number of fixed-term and permanent exclusions. Pupil referral unit populations are rising, there is increased early entry into further education colleges, and exponential increases in the number of children electively home educated. Extra pressure is being heaped on entry into special schools.

It seems that, quite simply, many of our mainstream schools are making room for a narrower band of students.

I’m not soft on poor behaviour in our schools. I’m no advocate for anarchy and chaos. I’m a concerned observer looking at what increasingly appears to be a failing educational experiment. The imperative for action is that many young people’s futures are at substantial risk.

My greatest concern is that the students most at risk from the “positive discipline” doctrine are those who do not fit the narrow parameters in which it works best.

The ones outside the parameters of strict policies rigidly and systematically enforced are more often the divergent thinkers, the awkward, sometimes the vulnerable, and sometimes the downright difficult. Most likely, they will be a substantial minority of the intake of a standard mainstream school in England.

I have concerns about a hidden curriculum of practice and rigid policy implementation that actually does the teaching, the informing and the influencing. I point to the genuine challenge in applying rigid systems to the everyday nuance, ambiguity, accident, happenstance and complexity of real life and real young people.

The schools and MATs most closely associated with “positive discipline” will point to their nurture provisions, to the care they most certainly provide, to many examples of going the extra mile and their many successes. I am certain that they are done incredibly well by kind and caring people who have a deep and relentless passion for their children. And they are surely what any school should do.

What these schools and MATs will rarely point to is the number of days of internal exclusions, fixed-term exclusion or permanent exclusions that their approach achieves. And what of the number of students who have, for whatever reason, left the school roll?

“Positive discipline” teaches conformity. It teaches that there is a suite of escalating sanctions for transgressions. Your mistakes stay with you and can amplify.

Resentment felt by students within an institution like a school when “someone is treated differently to them” represents either the passing of these values onto a new generation or the passing of the buck for the doctrine from its authors to the student body itself. Both cause me great discomfort. Leaving a legacy to the next generation of intolerance towards reasonable adjustments and respect for diversity feels like a very unpleasant legacy to me. It is not one that I believe will aid our growth as a society or as a nation.

I do not accept that this is a zero sum game. The choice is not “positive discipline” or chaos and disorder. A robust approach to effective discipline in schools does not pre-suppose “positive discipline”.

Reward, celebration and modelling are powerful influencers of behaviour. Positive language, assertive language, clear boundaries, empathy, high expectations, excellent staff-student relationships, mutual trust, respect and understanding are all apparent in the best schools. These things are subtle, multi-faceted and nuanced. They are based in relationships and in knowing students as individuals. “Positive discipline”, meanwhile, is the very bluntest of instruments.

There lies the fundamental difference and, in my view, the fundamental flaw. “Positive discipline” is a one-size-fits-all that doesn’t fit all. By its nature, it excludes its outliers and in so doing disregards responsibility for them.

I do not believe for one moment that proponents of “positive discipline” come from a bad place. All are certain of their moral compass and purpose. All believe that they are doing the right thing and for the right reasons.

My argument is that their frame of reference is too narrow. I understand the reasons and believe equally that the metrics on which the successes of schools and MATs that adopt this approach measure themselves are equally narrow.

For this to change requires many voices. It requires school leaders to make their position clear. It requires debate about what mainstream state education aims to achieve.

What about a measure of school effectiveness that takes account not only of success in exams but also success in lowered exclusion rates?
What about school effectiveness measured not only by attendance percentage but by percentage of the cohort that started and finished the year and a school career with the same school (unless the family moves, of course)?

What about a measure that takes account of days spent in isolation/separated from the peer group? What about a measure that takes account of governor oversight, scrutiny and challenge in relation to these matters?

I am encouraged by the position that appears to be being taken by chief inspector Amanda Spielman. It appears a substantially different position to that taken by her predecessor.

I believe that the time is right for us to ask ourselves what education is for and what kind of education system we aspire to for our country.
We educate all our young for the betterment of our society and for all our futures. We need our young people to grow into happy, healthy, polite, tolerant, respectful, caring and resourceful adults who can take their place as effective and engaged citizens in an unpredictable, dynamic and changing world, who can enjoy positive relationships with others and who can contribute positively to their communities and to the wider economy. And we owe this to all our young people. All of them – excluding none.

  • Mark Wilson is chief executive officer of the Wellspring Academy Trust.

Some excellent suggestions for alternative (and more useful) measures of school effectiveness in this article, and a crucial point about how rigid discipline policy 'disregards responsibility' for pupils that don't fit a prescribed template of expectations. We need to challenge what we even mean by 'behaviour', and how the very word tends to place blame on the pupils, rather than on schools' ability to understand all behaviour as a form of communication - if the behaviour is 'bad', what are they trying to communicate through that and how we (as the adults) respond more effectively?
This isn't always easy to do in a school context, we all know. However, it's how we will support the most vulnerable pupils and avoid the exclusions that disproportionately affect already disadvantaged children. Let's support a move away from old-school, shame-based behaviour policies as far as possible.

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