A first day coup d’etat from which there was no turning back, was essential. And it would indeed be a coup d’etat, a toppling from power. In the past it was the kids who ran Eastside [School]. They had the power. They set the tone, and the tone they set was chaos. They acted and administrators reacted. Very soon, power at Eastside would change hands.
Joe Clark (1989)
The Second Law of Behaviour Management is: It’s all about power. We need to accept that almost all poor behaviour at secondary schools is for only one purpose. It is an attempt by the individual who is misbehaving to grasp for themselves power over others. The disruptive child is seeking to demonstrate their power over their classmates’ learning. The lazy child is seeking to assert their power over the activities of the lesson. The argumentative child is seeking to assert their power over the adult they are arguing with. The bullying child is attempting to assert their power over their victims (be they staff or students). This motive is the be all and end all of how teenagers behave when they aren’t behaving. Other alleged motives – attention seeking, low self-esteem, fear of failure – are nothing compared with this one. Human beings are naturally hierarchical and school children, who are almost human, want to find their place in the hierarchy.
There may once have been a time, or a school, where the formal hierarchy of teachers and prefects was the most important one. There are still schools where academic achievement contributes to the hierarchy. However, more than anything we now have a situation where the overwhelming culture in our schools incorporates a hierarchy based on what one can get away with, where the worst students can get away with everything and the teachers can get away with nothing. What is done about behaviour must change the power relationships involved or it will make no difference at all. This makes a difference at every level of the education system.
The Classroom Teacher:
The classroom teacher must be at the top of the hierarchy in their own classroom. Partly this is a matter of style. Teachers should not be running around the classroom at the students’ beck and call. They should not be handing out pencils. They should not be helping students’ find the page in their textbooks. The teacher should not ask what the class wants to do. The teacher must shape the class not the other way around. Most of all teachers should never collaborate with students’ hierarchy. Ringleaders must be put in their place and not appeased. The teacher must rule on what is to be discussed in the classroom not join in when the children are chatting. Teachers must never indulge the prejudices, the low expectations and the bullying on the part of students.
Exclusions should be informed by the very simple principle that if any child is seen to be immune from the consequences of their actions then they will be able to force students and staff alike to confirm to their expectations. More importantly, the authority of teachers must be supported by every action of management. No more moving poorly behaved pupils around on the basis of “personality clashes”, no more encouraging teachers to punish less and build relationships with the worst behaved children. Most of all the word of a teacher must be taken over the word of a student every time. The culture of the school should reflect the hierarchy. All adults should be addressed as “Sir” or “Miss” at all times. In secondary schools it might even be time to return to the practice of calling students by their surnames.
As well as behaviour policy other aspects of school management should limit the opportunities for students to form their own pecking order. Break and lunchtime should be as short as possible and staggered to limit the amount of students who are out of lessons together. Setting policy should try to keep students away from the same limited peer group in lesson after lesson by setting across entire years, or even between years, in as many subjects as possible. Academic achievement and character should be rewarded more than any other achievement by students.
LEAs and Government:
There must be an end to countless appeals and obstructions when students are excluded. A teacher’s word must be enough. Warm word initiatives on bullying emerging from central government and LEAs should be replaced with clear sanctions for schools to use against bullies. Schools with a culture which discriminates against the academically able should be shut down as they serve no purpose. There must be an end to all initiatives that seek to increase the power of students. No more kids on interview panels. If school councils exist they should be part of a process of holding students to account, not getting students to interfere with the running of the school. No more deprofessionalisation of teachers.
Of course the things I’ve just suggested will be controversial. They are authoritarian. They seek to place the adult and the expert above the juvenile and ignorant. However, my argument is entirely based on the fact that in the absence of a hierarchy based on age, position and wisdom we won’t have an egalitarian culture of equals, we have another hierarchy, this time with the worst elements in control, where teachers and well behaved students live in fear.
Clark, Joe, Laying Down the Law, 1989, Regenery Gateway