Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System

August 27, 2014

Last time I talked about what made a school discipline work. I was glad to see a really positive response from a number of headteachers and SMT members about the post, there were really only one or two disappointing ones. A few years back any suggestion that discipline was a management responsibility rather than about classroom relationships was highly controversial. It does feel like there are now just too many schools that have become effective on the back of sorting out discipline properly for that kind of denial to continue to be widespread, particularly among those members of SMT who are active on social media and can be challenged by hundreds if they make the types of excuses for poor discipline that we still often hear in schools such as: “kids like these cannot be expected to listen quietly” or “if lessons were engaging there wouldn’t be any discipline problems”. However, it is not so long ago that a committee of heads (and a few other establishment figures) were asked to look into behaviour in schools and produced a report concluding that there was nothing much wrong, and I do think that this has a lot to do with the idea I mentioned in my last post of a school with “good enough” discipline.

A school with “good enough” discipline is a school where it is possible for those in authority and those who are well-established to have no real difficulties with discipline, particularly in lessons. It is one where OFSTED is more than likely to say behaviour is “good” on the basis of how students behaved for the day and a half when they visited the school. It may even be that less established teachers who have low expectations of effort or concentration may also thrive, never really needing to confront behaviour. However, at the same time, it is a school where a certain proportion of staff are going to faces classes which do not expect to work or learn. The most obvious people in these categories will be new staff and supply staff. But it might also be teachers who are newer to the school, or younger teachers. In some schools it may be teachers of particular subjects. Or it may be teachers who are singled out for their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Sometimes it may just be teachers who have got on the wrong side of a particular ringleader or clique among the students. In the worst cases it may be those who have been undermined by SMT, as if one student is let off for treating you terribly, others will usually try. Tom Bennett refers to this situation as the “two schools“, the one with the good behaviour inhabited by the powerful and the lucky, and the one with the poor behaviour inhabited by the marginalised and the unlucky. I think of it as the “good enough” school. It tends neither to be a school with a really challenging intake (they would collapse into anarchy without a decent discipline system) nor a school whose intake have really high expectations (they can implement even quite complex discipline systems without too much effort) but one that is somewhere in the middle. It is one where there are enough challenging students to terrorise some staff, but not so many that those who are powerful or influential within the school cannot protect themselves from the worst of it and consider behaviour to be “good enough”. There is neither too much risk of immediate disaster, nor ambition to stand out for being excellent.

The basic feature of the school with “good enough” discipline is seen in the direction of travel of the workload relating to behaviour. Responsibility is always pushed downwards to those who are less senior and have less power. If you want to spot the signs of a “good enough” school discipline system, you are best looking to see if most, but not necessarily all, of the following apply:

1) The headteacher (and other SMT members) would not consider discipline their top priority. It would probably not be in the top three. They simply don’t seem to be part of the system either in terms of leadership (telling staff what is expected of them) or management (actually making sure things happen). In schools with decent discipline systems, even those with a very well-behaved intake, SMT are really keen on telling staff to enforce the rules and to raise their expectations. They feel that if there is a classroom in the school where the teacher cannot or will not enforce the rules then it is a problem for everybody and they will exhort teachers to punish more, ask for support and to refer incidents upwards. Managers also have a very clear role in the discipline system dealing directly with the worst offenders and a strong presence around the school site

2) 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 governors and inspectors that seems very thorough and supportive and there is what staff are actually expected to do, which will often involving lowering expectations and leaving struggling colleagues to sink. Often discipline is very informal, and sanctions are highly arbitrary. Students know that what they do is less important than who they do it to. Teachers who follow the letter of the system are seen as “inflexible” and lacking in behaviour management skills. If you could end up being complained about, or told off by managers, for following the behaviour system then you are most likely to be in a school with “good enough” discipline.

3) Departments have a major responsibility in the discipline system. The capacity of school departments to deal with behaviour varies massively. They differ in size; they differ in experience; they differ in available time. One department might consist of two part-timers, another might consist mainly of full-time staff who have been at the school for two decades.  One department might include two members of SMT and three year heads, another might be mainly NQTs. One department might teach every child in the school, another might mainly have sixth-formers. No school can ever hope to have a consistent discipline system if departments are heavily involved. Even delegating too much to year heads can create inconsistency, but at least year heads have a clear jurisdiction. Detention systems run by departments struggle because the same student can be in detentions in more than one department. Systems of removing students based on departments can be worse than useless if everyone is teaching at once, or you have multiple challenging classes in the department at the same time.

4) Teachers have to administer most sanctions themselves. What goes for inconsistency between departments is multiplied many times for teachers. Leaving it to teachers to supervise their own detentions, or call parents, guarantees that some staff will be unable to comply with the system. Schools might have a policy where you put every student who doesn’t do their homework in detention, but it is not a serious policy if in the first week of term a teacher finds that they have fifty students who haven’t done their homework. Asking teachers who have suffered verbal abuse or physical assault to call parents is idiotic, it just makes the whole experience even more stressful. Even the most dedicated staff will have to limit themselves to enforcing only those rules that they know they can enforce without running out of time in the week.

5) Inadequate sanctions. There are certain policies that will never work. I can give multiple examples but here I will mention a few of the most obvious ones. One is a policy of “telling them to put it away” in response to use of mobile phones in lessons. It has to be at least a detention, where practical it should be confiscation of the phone as well, although that will need an effective behaviour system to enforce. Anything less will ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs and students will invariably have their phones to hand. Another place where sanctions are often inadequate are those for being sent out of the classroom. It has to be significantly more than a detention (particularly if detentions are hit and miss). The gains in terms of establishing a reputation and getting out of work from being removed from a lesson are such that a detention is not enough of a deterrent. Also, problems exist where the discipline system allows for multiple warnings without a punishment. There seem to be a remarkable amount of schools that have adopted systems in which punishments are administered on the third warning, that have also decided that every warning should be given only for prolonged and repeated misbehaviour rather than low level disruption. Warning systems work where behaviour management involves multiple students misbehaving and you need to ask them individually to comply. They do not work when a warning is considered a sanction rather than a sign that a sanction will be coming without immediate cooperation. They do not work where they simply make it harder for teachers to punish wilful and persistent misbehaviour.

6) The existence of “outlaws”. Outlaws are students who exist outside of the normal constraints of the discipline system. Some exist simply through how much of their behaviour is ignored because there is no capacity to deal with it. They will never attend the detentions that they have earned because there is nobody to chase them up or schedule them. They are the sort of student who owes forty detentions which are then written off when they attend just one. They have tested every system to the limit, have found the gaps, and now walk through them knowing precisely who to act up for, which days to be absent, and which detentions to run away from. The other sort of outlaws are those created directly by well-meaning intervention. Often on the SEN register, it has been decided that they cannot be held responsible for their actions and teachers are deterred or prevented from enforcing normal discipline with them. Any attempt to enforce normal classroom rules will result in protest, such as walking out or swearing at the teacher, and teachers will be blamed for having provoked them. These students already know their rights and privileges and will often tell you they have “anger management” in order to intimidate you before you ever try to enforce a rule.

7) Behaviour INSET is not about using the discipline system. If you want to have effective behaviour management then everyone needs to know exactly what they are meant to be doing and how the behaviour system works. It is not a good sign, then, if INSET on behaviour management is not aligned to that aim. While new teachers might need more training than that, it is never a good sign if whole school behaviour training is not about rules and sanctions. If managers hire somebody who will tell teachers that if they were just nicer to the kids, or made their lessons more engaging, then their problems will go away, then you can guarantee SMT has lost the plot on behaviour and are looking to ensure that those they are not supporting will blame themselves. The consultants who spread this message, some who actually make a living from this sort of nonsense, are no help at all and nothing would delight me more than seeing schools have the sense to put them out of business by concentrating on raising expectations not spreading blame.

Behaviour is about expectations. Students behave in the way they think is normal. Over time effective teachers (particularly in smaller schools) can raise those expectations. That is why, even in some of the worst schools, you will find veteran teachers who everybody behaves for. Sometimes a single department in a school manages the same thing and the students just know that is the subject they must behave in. But for a whole school to be effective then the expectations are part of a culture which has to be set across the board and consistency is what matters most. This is dependent on leadership setting a high standard, but also on well-managed systems that ensure everyone can easily maintain those standards even in the most trying circumstances. Judging by the reputations gained by those schools that collapse into chaos and those schools which crack discipline, most secondary teachers face schools with “good enough” discipline, where plenty of lessons are disrupted but there is enough order to protect key staff and to pull the wool over the eyes of inspectors. Though many schools seem to maintain this situation indefinitely, allowing this situation to continue risks spiralling into decline. Those schools that don’t settle for this, that push for better behaviour than the conventional wisdom accepts, and do so on principle rather than as a response to failure, usually become celebrated examples of high achievement.


  1. Spot on!

    And here is a possible sign of such a ‘good enough’ school.

    A pupil receives an end of term/year report which is entirely inconsistent.

    In some subjects for some teachers, the teachers express their intense disappointment and disapproval of underachievement and low-level disdain-type behaviour from the pupil – ‘could do better’, ‘fails to hand in homework on time’ and so on.

    The same pupil in other subjects – perhaps just one or two subjects – gets glowing praise and comments like ‘always makes a good contribution in class’, ‘working consistently to a good standard’ and so on.

    Then there are the middle-of-the-road comments ‘coasting most of the time’ ‘needs to be more consistent with homework’ ‘course-work overdue but on track to achieve expected levels’ and so on.

    It’s as if the teachers are talking about three different pupils, not the same pupil.

    So, what might this suggest?

    Far more than just a leaning towards a favourite subject.

    I think it is more indicative of behaviour management and expectation.

    When the pupil is quizzed about widely varying teacher-descriptions, the pupil has a very clear understanding of each teacher’s capability, attitude, relationship with pupils, capacity to manage the whole class – and so on.

    So clear is this analysis, it is almost chilling.

    This may be a ‘good enough’ school where some pupils do indeed succeed remarkably well, others get-by coasting and perhaps generally underachieving, other pupils may be failed by the overarching system – the ‘two school’ reality.

  2. So true! My school shows the consequences of this approach in action, and, believe it or not – now don’t laugh -, our behaviour is judged to be ‘good’ by Ofsted. http://www.joethebaron21.blogspot.co.uk

    • Easy to believe. I have no confidence that OFSTED can judge behaviour. Lots of horror stories.

  3. the school oldandrews talks about was the exact same as my 1st school I was forced out of over behaviour, the kids would always behave well in most classes but there was a few of us new teachers that were drowning with discipline problems and I was ostracised from the other staff when I told them I couldn’t get control or tried to set detentions, it was a sink or swim mentality-it was awful and if you were sinking the mentality was that it was the teacher’s fault rather than support them or allow them to carry out sanctions

  4. Another post that indicates to me that you should either be Secretary of State for Education or a Headteacher somewhere….

    I actually read your last 3 posts in reverse and this is the best of them- superbly written and sums up my various professional experiences with startling precision.

    For me schools adopting coordinated effective discipline – is THE solution for education in this country.

    Forget meddling in content or even assessment- these are red herrings- CONDUCT is the issue… always has been…

  5. Reblogged this on Robert Brooks.

  6. […] Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System […]

  7. Great post. Regarding behaviour as a responsibility of departments as well as the practical problems you highlight, systems that place the onus on department heads tend to have a hierarchy which places them below the Pastoral Team.

    Thus a department head I would have to do, detention 1 detention 2 meet with parents before I could transfer to HOY. At tat stage the requirement to follow a code would disappear into a black hole and the follow up would vary wildly between, blame the subject/ teacher/ HOD to “I’ll have a word” to proper support.

    Poor SMTs invest too much arbitrary powers in HOYs, to protect themselves and the quid pro-quo is that the HOY’s are given a free hand.

  8. […] The topic of behaviour management and the problems teachers face in dealing with disruption to lessons continues to evoke strong argument within teaching. The extent of the problem was explored in a 2014 paper by Terry Haydn which argued that whilst ‘official’ reports like Ofsted inspections appeared to rate behaviour as at least ‘satisfactory’  the majority of schools, there was evidence that deficits in classroom climate continue to be a serious and widespread problem. Examples of blogs detailing the sorts of issues in school approaches to behaviour are plentiful, an excellent example from Andrew Old can be found here. […]

  9. ”Or it may be teachers who are singled out for their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

    while i agree with everything you say here I don’t think this is true and strongly disagree, in all my years of working across schools I have yet to see a teacher who has faced bad behaviour for these reasons simply as kids do not consider such factors in who they will target- the bad behaviour you talk about can be faced by any teacher really-male or female, gay or straight, black, white or Asian. I don’t think for 1 second any of the 3 factors you listed has a single thing to do with getting targeted for bad behaviour simply because that does not come into play in a kid’s mind- I’ve seen groups behave terribly for a male teacher yet the same group be like angels for a female teacher and vice versa, likewise I’ve seen groups behave terribly for a white teacher and brillantly for the asian/black teacher and vice versa. Also I have yet to see a class know of a teacher’s sexuality, unless a teacher clearly exhibits it [which is highly rare] then it shouldn’t be an issue.

    Likewise you mention younger teachers getting targeted, I’d disagree here too but to a lesser extent as I’ve seen young teachers having massive respect in comparison with their older counterparts. I think the young thing would be more down to young teachers being new to schools and inexperienced.

    I would agree though with you that those that get bad behaviour are more likely to be those who are new, inexperienced,undermined and unsupported[probably the most common reason imo], or those have got on the wrong side of a bad clique in a year group and the reputation spreads. Having both attended secondary school in the 90s outside the UK and now work in a secondary school in the U.K sadly this case is an age old problem. The common comprehensive nowadays has the teachers that everybody behaves for, the teachers who are not strict but still manage to nail it through their own strategies and then that unlucky bunch who get heavily targeted.

    • Sorry, are you really claiming no teacher has ever been subjected to poor behaviour because of students’ racism, sexism or homophobia?

      I’m stunned if you are.

      • yes while I am aware that teachers may have been racially abused by a student or 2- it is highly unlikely a teacher would get targeted due to been male/female [i would say not possible] or their sexual orientation-students will never know if a teacher is gay or not simply because it is very hard to tell any any teacher with sense that is gay will be discreet.

        However you say those in schools who face bad behaviour could be because of their race/gender/sexual orientation is highly inaccurate, simply because students know that targeting a teacher for any of these reasons would get them in serious trouble and there will not be any class of students or even group that will be racist like that. Even the worst students know there is a line they cannot cross.

        As i said you are bang on with your other reasons why certain staff get targeted but race,sexual orientation and gender is rarely if ever a factor in teachers who face classes that they cannot control.

        • I don’t even know where to begin with this. I have been in schools where teachers were targeted for their ethnicity and sexual orientation. I have been in schools where male and female teachers were treated differently by the students. You are the first to ever claim that none of this stuff happened.

          • WELL I HAVE WORKED IN MANY SCHOOL HAVING DONE supply for 3.5 years and i CAN HONestly say I have never seen a teacher face bad behaviour solely cos of these reasons. 1st of all how would students know a teacher’s sexuality?? kids generally find it harder to know if somebody is gay or not and unless somebody is clearly obvious and stereotypical eg. extremely camp or highly butch female which is extremely rare in the profession [namely in the comprehensive schools] then students generally don’t have a clue what way a teacher is nor do they really speculate on this. I am gay myself and know lots of gay staff and this has never been an issue simply as students are completely unaware of a teacher’s sexuality.

            Secondly, for a whole class to turn against a teacher due to their skin colour is also highly improbable these days too simply because the UK is fill of mixed coloured staff and pupils so you are talking about a racist war. I am sorry but to say a teacher will face classes because of their skin colour is just ricidulous. I am white and currently work in a mostly white tough school and all the black staff and Asian staff members there do not seem to get targeted but most of the teachers who get targeted are white and never in a school have I seen a teacher face bad behaviour just because of their skin colour-that is just bizarre.

            Lastly I would also say the gender theory is wrong too in that the vast majority of staffs today are mixed and so are you saying in schools the males only get targeted and vice versa? I’d say this could be possible in a large boys comprehensive with a tiny minority of staff being female but again this set up is extremely rare.

            I am sorry but I mostly agree with all of your blogs and think you make excellent points and have a good understanding of the politics of school like nobody else but I think you are off with this one.

            • I did a quick check on Twitter. Plenty of other people have had my experiences. Also, I would warn you against minimising the seriousness of homophobia by saying that gay teachers can stay in the closet, or assuming racism only refers to skin colour.

  10. ok well could you link me where teachers said they faced bad behaviour over their nationality, skin colour, gender or sexual orientation as I would be very interested to read on this?

    As far as I see bad behaviour could possibly be targeted on Canadian or US teachers in UK because of their accents and their enthusiastic personalities and the general culture differences between the UK and them but to say teachers get targeted for their gender just makes no sense considering the vast majority [if not all] secondary schools have a mixed staff so it’s improbable to think that the students would behave for just the males or females.

    As for sexual orientation I could see this been a problem if it is an extreme effeminate camp acting man in a tough secondary school and the skin colour theory too holds no substance. In fact many of the SLT i see today are a good mix in tough secondary schools.

    As I said I think you are bang on with your other points and your two schools model is a very accurate portrayal of how behaviour works in alot of schools but the targeted staff would be mostly supply, new staff, unsupported staff, undermined staff, inexperienced staff,certain departments[although with proper staff and support this can be fixed] staff who are not suited to teaching ie. personality traits where they are overly stressed or lack skills/under prepared in lessons and those who got on the wrong side of a clique ….

    But to look at the two schools and say the targeted is because of their sexuality, gender or sexual orientation is far and few between…

  11. […] have that good culture for long. Schools rapidly go from having great behaviour to “good enough” behaviour and from “good enough” behaviour to poor behaviour. So let’s […]

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