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How to grapple with discipline in schools

21 June 2015

8:29 PM

21 June 2015

8:29 PM

The government’s new school discipline leader Tom Bennett has a difficult brief; he’s in charge of stopping the schoolchildren of the entire nation swinging on their chairs, playing on their telephones, making silly comments and passing notes. Discipline is a problem the Spectator has often grappled with over the years. Writing in 1970, Rhodes Boyson said although there had been incidents in the early19th century when schools had called in troops to put down riots, modern schools weren’t much better at keeping control.

My first deputy head told me that when he started teaching in 1890 in a small Lancashire textile town he, along with other young teachers, dared not go to the station at the end of the school day without the presence of the headmaster or he would be attacked in the street by groups of boys throwing stones and sods of earth…When I began teaching in 1950, after active service in the war and four years training, my first two terms in a Lancashire secondary modern school were a battle for survival compared with which periods in the war were like a holiday camp.

The raising of the school leaving age, huge schools, comprehensive schools widening the experience of many teachers, the method of training teachers, a crisis in confidence both within the teaching profession and in society as a whole—all these have, however, increased the problem to an extent when police on the school campus may not be an impossible situation in the near future.

In 1984, Jake Fletcher identified a new trend among teachers for secret violence, now that corporal punishment was no longer officially sanctioned. He started by quoting an essay written by a 12-year-old named J. Smith:

“There are four main ways to enforce discipline. The master can shout, yell, rant and rave at the pupils; he can keep them in at break or after school; he can hand out impositions and punishment essays; or he can hit them. The most effective is hitting the pupils. The second most effective is yelling at them. This is because it makes the pupils think you are going to hit them.”


Fletcher called this Smith’s Law, but it was already losing its power.

Just as our folk memories of the gold standard have an almost calculable half-life in terms of public confidence in mere paper currency, so does the collective unconscious of schoolchildren pay tribute to the shout in proportion as it retains the impression left on it over so many centuries by the cane. Moreover, this residual trust can be augmented by little demonstrations of violent behaviour on the teacher’s part, such as kicking chairs or desks over, hurling a book across the room or even simply banging a fist upon the table, which fall short of physical assault upon the child. But the really effective teacher will, during his tantrums, slap or kick a boy occasionally, relying for his safety on the boy’s horror of being thought a crybaby, just to be sure of leaving his class in no doubt whatever that he is still capable of physical violence.

Under these circumstances, the more arbitrary and irrational the violence, the more effective it is.

A friend of mine, a very effective teacher, tells of the instruction he received in discipline in his teacher-training course. There he learned that there is a six-phase, escalating programme for dealing with troublesome pupils. This consists of:

1. The Look.
2. The Stare.
3. The admonishing Identification (‘Tomkinson?’).
4. The Reminder (‘Tomkinson, I have spoken to you before!’).
5. The Warning (‘Tomkinson, if I have to speak to you again I shall have to ask you to leave the room.’).
6. The Yellow Card (‘Tomkinson, leave the room!’).

My friend quickly discovered the uselessness of this admirably rational system, ‘because the boys know, or very quickly come to learn, that they can go to phase five before anything happens. The only sensible way of dealing with Tomkinson is to pick out Jones, the inoffensive little swot in the front row, and belt him on the side of the head. Then they don’t know what you’re going to do. Why should the boys have a monopoly of injustice?’

Another acquaintance of mine cheerfully introduces younger colleagues to the art of discipline by showing them the places on a boy’s body where a seemingly innocuous clasp of shoulder or elbow can be very painful

…The teacher…is coming increasingly to rely on unofficial sanctions in what amounts to a black market of discipline. If pupils are kept in line at all it is more and more the case that it happens secretly, quietly and violently.

Around the same time Colin Welch agreed it was important to take a hard line with disruptive children.

In a brilliantly perceptive article in the Salisbury Review, Mr Ray Honeyford, a comprehensive headmaster, deplored ‘the rise of the teacher with the values, outlook and vocabulary of the social worker’. The teacher is, or should be, ‘optimistic’; he makes demands, sets standards, expects good work and behaviour, is sceptical of excuses, encourages aspiration, proper ambition and the pursuit of excellence, rewards effort. The social worker by contrast expects the worst, provides excuses and alibis for the lazy, loutish and confused, sees only victims of circumstances, abhors discipline, uses abstractions to explain behaviour — class, disadvantage, racism, alienation and the like. He is thus as a teacher ‘the covert enemy of the children he professes to care for, the enemy of self- help for the working-class child’.

In March the Times Educational Supplement reported a not untypical ‘breakdown of discipline’ in a South London comprehensive. On one afternoon, 75 fourth- formers who should have been in class roamed the playground. A teacher who tried to make a girl pay attention was thumped on the chest, another was punched several times by a boy he caught running down a corridor. Bottles were dropped from classroom windows, pupils kicked in the face; youths in fights outside the school gates inflicted stab wounds…In all our inner cities a like anarchy is widespread. It is in great part the fruit of trendy social worker teachers, who engender it, tolerate it or fail to stamp it out. What are they doing to deserve a rise? Angrily they proclaim that they are paid less than policemen. Who can help wondering whether they ought not actually to be replaced by policemen, who would surely make a better job of teaching and keeping order?

Tom Bennett, who loves a metaphor, says that with the ‘willpower of Oliver Cromwell and the patience of a heart surgeon’ any school can create good discipline, even without stealthy bouts of violence from teachers, so perhaps there’s hope yet for the teaching profession, as well as all the Joneses out there.


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