Inspire or discipline: schooling tomorrow’s citizens

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Frobisher 4-6Battle for Education

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What’s the best way to raise well-behaved youngsters? This is a question that many schools, parents and even governments, are grappling with today. This question has become particularly acute with poor behaviour in the classroom seemingly a growing problem.

In a world where the ‘decline of authority’ is a frequent complaint, schools seem to be responding by adopting ever more punitive measures to keep control in the classroom. Barry Smith, headmaster of Charter Academy in Great Yarmouth, was praised by Ofsted for his strict behaviour policy, including a controversial ban on fashionable haircuts. Isolation, suspension and exclusion were once seen as last resorts, but are often used as go-to punishments for misbehaving kids today. The Education Select Committee in the UK believes expulsion is now so common that they recommend drastically reducing its use. In the media, programmes like Educating Essex and Educating Greater Manchester have become popular for shining a light on the behavioural challenges that some teachers face in schools in poorer areas of the UK.

Even governments are considering a tougher approach to student discipline and socialising young people. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has announced a reinstating of mandatory national service for France’s youth. Arguing that it will ‘inspire patriotism and social cohesion’, the scheme involves a compulsory month-long placement in teaching, working with charities and traditional military training with the army, police or fire service. The UK secretary of state for defence, Gavin Williamson, recently commissioned a review into the benefits a ‘military ethos’ might bring to schools. Williamson argued that an army presence in schools – from cadets in classrooms to army-style drills – could ‘boost the life chances, confidence and self-discipline of youngsters in deprived areas’. He’s not alone in suggesting that some schools might need something more than dinner ladies patrolling the playground. Over 150 schools in London use knife wands on their pupils, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, pledging to bring more police officers into schools in a bid to crack down on knife crime.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. So-called ‘zero tolerance’ behavioural policies have been criticised by some teachers for treating schools like prisons. Michaela Community School faced criticism last year for putting its pupils through a behaviour ‘bootcamp’. And concerns were raised at a recent NUT conference about what effect punitive measures like isolation would have on children’s development and mental health.

How do we get kids to behave well? Have we been too soft on discipline for too long? Is forcing kids to behave a certain way denigrating the idea of school as a place where kids enjoy their learning?

As well as good behaviour, there are bigger questions about what kind of values we instill in today’s youth. How do we teach our kids to be active members of society, if we can’t even get them to sit still? Is Macron’s idea of compulsory community service a good one? Is this simply a question for schools and teachers? Or do all adults have a duty to encourage young people to become good citizens, instead of outsourcing our authority to cadets in camouflage?