The campaign against discipline

December 16, 2018

It seems a long time since the days of 2013, when putting more knowledge in the curriculum could inspire 100 educationalists to write a letter claiming this:

….could severely erode educational standards. The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Progressives have retreated. These days they are more likely to say that they are the true advocates of knowledge, while putting forward teaching methods and curriculum ideas that obstruct the learning of knowledge, than claim knowledge is harmful. In fact, these days they hardly seem to be trying to win any arguments with teachers about pedagogy and curriculum.

The traditionalist viewpoint has become mainstream. It seems like you can’t throw a brick in a secondary school these days without hitting a teacher who is talking about knowledge, explicit instruction, retrieval practice or interleaving. While much of what is happening is just lip service, and plenty of schools have just added a few techniques that work to a list of things that don’t, things have moved on. Perhaps not at all levels, and certainly not so much among teacher trainers, but the debate has turned round on curriculum and pedagogy.

However, if you did throw that brick, then progressives probably would take the time to argue that you can’t be held responsible for that and that the person you threw it at had brought it on themselves by ignoring your unmet needs. The battleground is once again behaviour. And while few secondary teachers, even those who are entirely progressive on the curriculum and pedagogy, have much sympathy for the progressive cause on behaviour, there is a receptive audience in the media and among politicians. As well as repeated school shamings for any school that makes a big deal of enforcing rules and routines, there has been a lot of commentary about what schools do about the students with the most extreme behaviour.

So far this year we have seen:

  • Media coverage, reports from charities, inspectors and politicians saying that exclusions are a bad thing. Much of this has referred to both fixed term and permanent exclusions.
  • Media coverage and online campaigns saying that internal exclusion (i.e. when a child is taken out of lessons but not sent home) is a bad thing.
  • OFSTED and political comment on “off rolling”. While rightly critical of attempts to manipulate league tables by removing kids from school rolls, or to do permanent exclusions unofficially, this has led to a lot of blanket condemnation of schools that lose kids for any reason. This includes managed moves (i.e. a change of school due to behaviour) or the unfortunate situation where parents refuse to cooperate with a school that expects their child to behave.

Unfortunately, any idea associated with OFSTED and any idea getting press coverage, immediately becomes currency. Anecdotally, there are already tales of LAs and MATs telling schools to reduce exclusions and inspectors asking lots of questions about internal exclusions. A school leader trying to play it safe would be looking to avoid exclusions, managed moves, and internal exclusions. But this leaves an obvious question about what to do about the most extreme behaviour.

The alternatives to actually removing kids with extreme behaviour are:

  • Tolerating extreme behaviour.
  • Er… that’s it.

Non-teachers (particularly those offering their services to schools for a price or writing about social justice in academia) will claim that the problems can be dealt with by “meeting unmet needs” or “restorative justice”, but teachers know that these things are never sufficient. Kids behave badly because they can get away with it and because it has become normal. When discipline systems have no strong sanctions, behaviour breaks down; teachers are left with nothing but appeasement as a discipline strategy. “Behaviour management” becomes a matter of begging, bribing and ignoring. We have seen behaviour go wrong here, particularly in the 2000s, and we have seen it in other countries. And once discipline breaks down, and teachers are not coping, there will be a concerted effort by progressives to claim we need to reconsider pedagogy and curriculum to address these problems.

Could this campaign succeed? My view is that it will only happen if politicians lose sight of the big picture. If they take action against exclusions, internal exclusion and off-rolling, without realising that this will leave schools with no options, we will lose control of behaviour in our schools. Whenever one of these issues is raised we need to ask “What is the alternative?” And if it doesn’t involve actually removing kids from classrooms or schools when their behaviour is out of control, then we need to object as a profession. We also need to see political leadership. We need politicians willing to say “I stand for safe and orderly schools and those who don’t like this are dangerously wrong”.



  1. Great pedagogy – focusing on learning plenty of information and practicing retrieval , not much time left for thinking .
    Discipline – be a policeman and make offenders be accountable and pay a price of an imposed consequence or be a teacher help a kid learn better skills and engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution , making amends , and renewing their commitment to the learning community. Why would a juvie detention facility give up on discipline and focus on collaborative problem solving https://livesinthebalance.org/node/832 . If the focus is on raising test scores in a factory environment , for sure behavior management would speak to you.

  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. What has happened is many politicians and special interest groups, the media supporting and creating, has created a system that has forgotten what real parenting, real mentorship, and real teaching is all about. Some of this is intentional: they’re seeking to remove real education, which then effectively creates citizens incapable of critical thinking and buying into what is expounded upon in commercials, shows, the media, and political movements. I love dogs. I love cats. But I would never place an animal above humans even though many humans behave worse. But commercials have us thinking upside down, and this, in fact, is the purpose behind many shows and politicians.
    Real education is simple beyond belief, perhaps moreso for some teachers and parents. But it’s easier for those who did obtain a quality education, have worked in the “real world” and those who also learned to think for themselves.
    I once told a few students I can teach falling off a chair. Why? Because somehow, as I explain on my site, I learned to think for myself. How did this happen? I think moving a lot as a family prevented my learning only one’s school’s ways, but also opened me up to differing cultures and points of view without realizing it. I think the schools I grew up attending were not as politically controlled, so teachers had more range to create interesting lessons and not test us all the time, which would have caused me to further rebel. But most of all, going to work at various jobs prior to completing college, but also working in summer camps where I saw how easy it was to instruct our youth, really opened my eyes. It was during that time that I realized I could learn anything, and quickly. And in the university, how easy it became to garner As, rarely studying more than once a week because I did everything in the class. What did I do? I threw out all the rules and preconceptions. I refused, the second time around, to follow other students’ ways of learning. No all-nighters. No constant rereadings. In fact, I rarely read any chapter more than once. And this, I taught students. If you can understand the first time around what you’re reading, perhaps writing little summaries as you go along, and even draw pictures of what each chapter is about, at home, all you might have to do is read your notes, look at the pictures, and share your thoughts with your parents, siblings, or classmates/friends. It’s that easy. Of course, I had students who learned different techniques, and I told them “whatever works.”
    But they are taking everything that makes the good, traditional, creative teacher away. Good means a real adult who understands children, the way children need to be understood: no gimmicks. Traditional because the adults I saw while young knew how to manage classrooms, raise children, and coach. They never felt sorry for us. They expected more. And they did their job. Creative, because teachers find innovative ways to get information across which doesn’t need overtesting. Then, there’s the “feelings” movement and overworry about bullies, the very bullies the system often creates.
    There’s much more that can be said. I’ll leave it with one picture: There was a child in one of my classes who was becoming a bully. I could see, without supervision and straight talk, he was becoming less “sensitive” to others. In a sense, he was losing his conscience. Perhaps, with time, he would become one of those kids who would bring “something” to the school, and in fact, he did this once. But after a short stint away, he returned, and I knew my job was beginning. I did not “understand” him (I did, of course.). I did not coddle him. We had a couple small discussions, and I looked him straight in the eyes so he would see I understood the wrong he was thinking about. Yes, you can be afraid of others, but over-reaction will cause you to do very wrong things. He understood. There was no equivocation. He got it. He knew I knew. And whenever he got to feeling sorry for himself, I was there to remind him to get back to work. Never did I feel sorry for him. I knew of his difficult family circumstances, and we did talk about this a couple of times: once to let him share, and another to let him know I understood. But you can’t live in the problems all the time. You have to learn to work, and when things get tough, continue working and deal with life’s problems as they happen. But keep going. That boy’s grades improved markedly. He didn’t need me to hold his hands. He didn’t need me to talk about feelings all the time. And he certainly just wanted his life to be as normal as possible. That’s what I, and many good teachers, do. It’s old school, but it’s effective.

  4. […] the last six months, educational progressives have shifted their attention to preventing schools from keeping kids safe. Their two key demands […]

  5. […] The campaign against discipline […]

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