The new school year is upon us and with it comes the annual uniform debate, or should I say war, because that’s what it feels like. At the centre of the controversy this year is one tough talking new school Head who wants to set out a no nonsense approach to his leadership regime. Cue fifty kids getting sent home on their first day back for what appear to be largely minor uniform breaches.
While there has been considerable outrage at his stance, there has also been equally large swathes of support, usually along the lines of; ‘the children and parents knew the rules, they chose to break them.’
At first glance this would seem to be a quite trivial matter, but lurking underneath it is, in my opinion a huge issue affecting not only our schools, but our society too. Because this black and white thinking, this rule enforcing, intolerant approach is everywhere. It’s what makes my blood boil when I get a hundred quid fine for doing thirty four in a thirty zone, or the parking ticket for being ten minutes late or the on the spot fine for driving in a bus lane, wheelie bin fines or fines for dropping litter. It’s the road rage fury at incompetent drivers or people who make mistakes on the road. It’s the fines for being fifteen minutes late for signing on the dole, It’s the banking charges for being a few quid over my limit or the computerised voice at the end of the phone, unyielding and inhuman saying; ‘sorry sir, this is our company policy, these are the rules, you broke them’.
But looking at the bigger picture, what are we actually teaching young people when we treat them in this way? Does this kind of treatment breed respect, discipline and order or does it teach young people that they too should be harsh, intolerant and inflexible when dealing with conflict? What kind of people do we want our children to become? It is precisely these kinds of adult behaviours that mould our pupils sense of well being and if recent statistics are accurate, we aren't doing a good job of it.
According to the NSPCC a child in the UK contacts Childline with suicidal thoughts every thirty minutes. Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years. The number of children and young people turning up in A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009 and, in the past three years, hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders have also almost doubled. How can it be that our young people appear to be suffering such poor mental health when they are living in one of the richest societies on the planet? As educators, isn’t it our duty to find out why this is and try to put it right?
To us, as adults, it may seem like we are doing right by the kids by enforcing high standards and setting out a strong discipline policy, but were there better, less hostile ways to resolve this matter? Many experienced teachers seriously suggested that other forms of punishment were more appropriate such as detention. Really? Is this your best alternative? Personally, I always wanted to start the year on positives, building confidence and motivating my pupils. Surely something along these lines has to be put first and foremost not dwelling solely on negatives?
If small transgressions in socks and buckles on shoes were your thing, then couldn't you gently take pupils to one side or have a quiet, friendly word with Mum or Dad? No egos crushed, no feet trodden on or tempers flared. If certain individuals persistently flout the system, then deal with it appropriately and fairly but the main focus should surely be on welcoming the young person back to school and building self esteem.
Now I’m not going to go teacher bashing and say that all schools are driven by cold, inflexible tyrants, that's not what I'm saying. Most pupils do well at school and most teachers and SLT's are brilliant at what they do. This is evident from the excellent results pupils get. But what about the significant proportion of children who aren’t able to follow the golden learning path to success? What about the minority who can’t conform for whatever reason? Our society is littered with young people who couldn’t conform or couldn’t perform, those who caused trouble by refusing to abide by the rules. There are usually bigger, more complex issues here, but what role do we play in this and what might we do better?
Lastly, what upsets me just as much is that this no nonsense mentality of approach is not restricted to the way in which Senior Leaders treat ‘naughty’ children. Increasingly, it’s the way staff are being treat. Teachers must meet a strict set of standards or they will face consequences. Lessons must contain certain content, they must be structured in a particular way or show evidence of this and that. To be fair, Senior Leaders probably feel the same way about the way Ofsted treats them. It’s the same fear culture circulating everywhere. It’s nasty and it’s not necessary.
Paul is an art education consultant from the UK