The Two Discipline Systems

November 24, 2007

No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.

Luke 16:13

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

Orwell (1948)

In my experience schools have a split personality where behaviour management is concerned. There are two discipline systems. There is a theoretical one, that appears in the Staff Handbook and anywhere a school governor, a job applicant or an OFSTED inspector might get to read it, and there is the one that actually exists in the day to day running of the school.

The theoretical system will usually follow the following pattern to some degree:

  1. Some offences are to be automatically punished with a detention which parents will be informed of the day before. These may include having a phone on in school, dropping litter, turning up late to lessons. Similarly, certain items (phones, chewing gum, excessive jewellery) will be subject to confiscation.
  2. It is assumed that all teachers can and will set detentions according to the rules and all students will do them.
  3. Form tutors will be expected to ensure their tutor groups all have the correct equipment and uniform.
  4. In the event of a persistent problem, such as failure to attend detentions or repeated disruption of lessons, year heads and other middle managers will be involved.
  5. Serious incidents, such as verbal abuse of staff, will be referred to SMT for exclusion, or similarly serious measure. In extreme cases students will be permanently excluded.

The actual system is usually more like this:

  1. Most offences will be subject to at least one warning. Students will expect a chance to put prohibited items away in their bags and will not expect to be punished as long as they do this. Even in schools where phones are banned outright several students will use them in a lesson and will not expect to be punished when caught as long as they then put them away.
  2. Detentions are seen as discretionary for staff and optional for students. Staff will try as far as possible to keep students in at lunchtime or break or just give short after school detentions without a day’s notice. Teachers who set proper detentions simply because rules are broken may be subject to criticism by management as well as harassment by students. A large part of the student body will be effectively detention-immune. Frequent truants and students with awkward parents are extremely unlikely to have to attend detentions.
  3. Students will turn up repeatedly without the correct equipment or uniform. Form tutors will either tolerate this as they simply do not have the time to enforce all these rules or alternatively the students will simply skip registration in the morning.
  4. Year heads and middle managers will be completely overwhelmed and unable to chase up all persistent offenders. The best of them will communicate to staff just what they are actually able to do to support them. The worst will ignore requests, make promises they can’t keep or blame the teachers involved for the problem they are reporting.
  5. SMT will ignore referrals unless you corner them. The vast majority of serious incidents will end up with year heads (which is a large part of the reason why year heads are always overwhelmed). The two most likely consequences of verbally abusing a teacher are a) nothing and b) a telling off. Exclusions will be saved for ludicrously serious offences, setting fires, bringing in weapons, thumping teachers in the face. Permanent exclusions will virtually never happen. SMT will talk about the lack of permanent exclusions as if it was a good thing.

Of course maintaining two contradictory systems at once is difficult. How does a headteacher tell somebody about the theoretical system in their job interview and the real system once they’ve got the job without seeming insincere or delusional? How do SMT follow two masters, the theoretical discipline system and the actual discipline system? The answer is that it takes a certain amount of “doublethink”. Usually this is done by considering the theoretical system to be a genuine system but one that bad, unprofessional teachers have to use due to their poor relationships with the children and weak behaviour management skills. The actual system, by contrast, is much more lenient because able teachers are so liked by students that they barely have to enforce the rules and therefore this much more casual approach will work. Once this philosophy is accepted it soon becomes clear that every teacher enforcing the rules rigorously, or worse, expecting school managers to support them with enforcing the rules, is incompetent and unable to relate to children. Children can only be found to have broken the rules due to inadequate teaching. Enforcing the rules is simply a symptom of being bad at behaviour management. It becomes more acceptable to complain to management that students have upset you than to report that they cannot be stopped from breaking the rules. Euphemisms help with the process of doublethink. Allowing misbehaviour becomes “strategic ignoring”, inconsistency over the rules becomes “flexibility” and appeasement becomes “building relationships”.

I suspect practising doublethink in this way may be bad for one’s psychological health. Long serving members of SMT can become completely detached from reality. As well as the delusions that the teaching staff are to blame for everything and that anybody who reports a problem must also have caused it, some members of SMT even begin to imagine that they are actually making a positive difference to the lives of the students in their schools.


Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1948



  1. How horribly true. In our school the theoretical system is applied to a few kids who dare to try it on once or twice. For the persistent offenders the “real” situation above applies. To be fair ours aren’t detention immune but they are so inured to it that it is part of their school day.

  2. Ultimately, the bottom line is that all rules should exist to support a positive learning environment, which includes the safety and welfare of all individuals in a building. It is so frustrating that not all rules do this (gum chewing comes to mind here) and that most of the rules are subject to the whims of administrative adjustment. I’ve never quite understood why chewing gum in my building warrents an hour clean-up detention and disruptive classroom behavior is expected to follow a warning system like the one you suggest. It is frustrating and quite maddening for teachers who receive mixed messages on how to work with kids.

    To me, this “double-think” is a trust issue between teachers and the community/administrators. Respect is so hard to earn in this profession.

  3. As a 2nd year teacher, verbally abused and nothing happened and mother of a Y11 student suspended for 5 days for swearing under his breath, all on the dame day, aaaarrrrggggg

  4. Consistency is so important for effective discipline: in the individual classroom and across the school as a whole. It’s not the severityof the consequece that is important but the certainty in the pupil’s mind that there will BE a consequence.

    If you look on my blog you will see I have a link to a very good website (in my opinion) on how to manage the classroom.

  5. “it soon becomes clear that every teacher enforcing the rules rigorously, or worse, expecting school managers to support them with enforcing the rules, is incompetent and unable to relate to children”

    Very well said, the school discipline system becomes a literal paper tiger, and any referrals are seen as an excuse by SMT to view the teacher with suspicion.

  6. I feel acutely for the NQT in our dept who has been told that he is a whiner with poor classroom management because he enforces the sanctions system as it appears in the handbook and on the notices on every classroom wall.

    He has been asked to stop sending yellow incident reports to the LEA. The last one was because a pupil stamped on his foot because he blocked the dorrway to an out-of-bounds area; the previous one was that he had been threatened and abused by a Year 10 pupil.

    It’s not that he’s the only one these happen to: it’s just that in his innocence he thought the sanctions system existed to support teachers and discipline errant pupils.

  7. This is a fantastic blog! Thanks for finding the time and the patience to write about all this. All I have to add is that what is bad for your psychological health will, in the end, undermine your physical health, or worse. Not news, I know.

  8. Thank you for the excellent post.

    I came to the UK to teach. I was prepared for bad students. But I was not prepared for the horrible head teachers you have.

    What you wrote is EXACTLY what I experienced.

  9. WOW, does this article ever hit the nail on the head! I think you’ve clearly articulated exactly the management problems and administration attitudes characteristic of MOST schools, good AND bad!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas

  10. I love your blog because you explain my exact experiences so well and it is reassuring to realise that this is so often what happens and I am not going mad.

  11. Cheers for ‘re-releasing’ all these posts: I’m not sure whether to be reassured or disheartened that my experience is very common – but at least I can see that it’s not ‘my fault’ although I evidently have an effect on behaviour.
    Strikes me that if poor behaviour was mainly due to poor teaching then we’d start off with reasonable behaviour which would go off as the children were progressively affected by the teaching. Instead the children come in to lessons with new teachers ready and prepared to test them to destruction!

  12. Thank you.

    The suggestion that poor behaviour is at root a result of poor teaching is the big lie of behaviour management. A lesson a student doesn’t enjoy might provide a motive (although even that doesn’t mean that every lesson should be enjoyable, some things just aren’t) but it doesn’t provide means or opportunity. Nine times out of ten it doesn’t even provide a motive and you can tell that a student is going to kick off long before you have even started any actual teaching.

    • ha exactly, blaming a teacher for poor behaviour is like blaming doctors for people getting cancer, car dealerships for car crashes or dentists for people having bad teeth…

  13. I have now found out that in the US “strategic ignoring” is called “extinction”:


    A friend of mine who is a teacher (at a good school) was convinced that I must have made up the whole concept for satirical purposes.

  14. Thank you for this re-release. I cant imagine how I missed this post as its an issue that used to be close to my heart.

    I once worked at school with a magnificent theoretical policy. The staff knew it was fantasty but we had a trainee that assumed it was a real policy. He expected silence and bags under the table when he had to do a registration cover. When he insisted the students did this by moving one of the precious bags they attacked him!

    Im not making this up. Passing 6th form students went to his aid to pull the students off him. The ringleader actually made a complaint against him which the police had to investigate so he was automatically suspended but the girl only served a few days exclusion. Amazing.

    A classic example of theory vs reality

    I think there should be a national set of guidelines to avoid SLT dodging their primary responsibilites. A standard incident report form and a clause in all teachers contracts that makes it compulsory to report offences to SLT and the LEA. Then nobody could sweep anything under the carpet.

    then theory could match reality

  15. My schools SMT just made it clear that relationship-building was the bases that a teacher would rule his/her classroom. Normal behaviour is not the be expected from ordinary students.


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  17. […] Try to follow the behaviour policy. In some schools the policy is a joke and staff are deterred from using it. However, as a new teacher you are less likely to be told off for using it, but do […]

  18. Woooo thank you, I am having the exact same problem in my school AND THOUGHT I was going crazy. I’ve even told people and they think i’m delusional. I’m an nqt and several times when I tried to enforce penalties like hour detentions or report incidents to slt my boss was angry at me. She was also angry at me for going to the kids tutors about behaviour. Her ‘solution’ to misbehaviour in my class is to shout at them and then leave or sit in the class with me-then I can’t learn how to get class manage myself by her been there or because if I try to introduce punishments she gets pissed. Now as it stands I have 0 discipline and she has blamed me for the problem of misbehaviour on several occasions- the big irony is that they call this my ‘support’? She also was angry at me for raising my voice in out of control classes and said ‘she has not raised her voice in a year when I’ve seen her doing it countless times.

  19. […] There are two discipline systems. I wrote about this here. Reflecting the “two schools” there is a paper discipline system that will be shown to […]

  20. […] Old, my favorite “Black Hat” blogger talks about school’s two discipline systems. One is written in the handbook, the other is what actually happens on the ground. He is correct. […]

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