Should Discipline in our Schools be Stricter?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 19 January 2022
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Discipline in Schools; Exam results; Standards of Behaviour

During an interview on ITV’s flagship Good Morning show on January 10th Katharine Birbalsingh, Principal and founder of Michaela Community free school in North London  defended her school’s very strict approach to discipline and called for parents to be more involved in pupil learning. She has faced much criticism recently from both parents and educationalists, who have characterised the school as being like a prison. During the interview she was challenged by Holly Willoughby that she was piling guilt onto hard working parents by asking them to take more ownership of their children’s learning at home and not just leave it to teachers.

The principal countered strongly that parents should take an active role in educating their children and for example read to them and with them. She stated that it is too late to worry when a child underachieves at GCSE and wonder what should have been done differently. It is not enough she claimed, to leave it entirely to the teachers in school who with the best will in the world, cannot be everything the child needs every minute of the day. Children want their parent’s respect more than anything she added and if they take a keen interest in their child’s learning it will result in more motivation and achievement.

The approach to the day in Michaela Community School blends a more traditional style of teaching and rules which require pupils to file out to their next class in silent corridors. The children walk between classrooms without speaking in single file, moving quickly. Anyone who does not gets a demerit and subsequently detention. Birbalsingh defends the approach claiming that corridors in schools are where bad behaviour often takes place and pushing and fights can break out as large groups of children mill around. By moving in a straight line, the children stay calm and focused for their next lesson. In terms of teaching style she states that;

 “We have the teacher standing at the front and imparting knowledge. We believe the teacher knows more than the children,” she says.
'No excuses': inside Britain's strictest school | Schools | The Guardian

The proof of the pudding of this approach to education was always going to be the examination outcomes. The Guardian reported in August 2019 on their GCSE examination results.

 “Michaela community school, a controversial free school known for its strict behaviour policy, picked up its first set of GCSE results on Thursday, five years after opening its doors to its first pupils. Compared with other non-selective state schools, Michaela’s results rank among the best in the country. More than half (54%) of all grades were level 7 or above (equivalent to the old-style A and A*), which was more than twice the national average of 22%. Nearly one in five (18%) of all grades were 9s, compared with 4.5% nationally, and in maths, one in four results were level 9.

Quoting Birbalsingh’s Twitter feed - which documented her morning– the girl who got straight 9s, the boy who used to be badly behaved but did brilliantly, the disbelief of another pupil as he read, and reread, his results – “Miss, these can’t be real” – the staff celebration. In a subsequent interview, Birbalsingh could not disguise her delight. “It’s really great. When you think all of our kids are from the inner city, they are from challenging backgrounds, they are deprived kids. I don’t have any white, middle-class kids in the school.”
Controversial Michaela free school delights in GCSE success | GCSEs | The Guardian

So are strict discipline approaches like this a useful or necessary part of the success formula for examination success?

In Northern Ireland the accepted approach to discipline in schools set by the Department of Education is enshrined in a number of key documents including in particular,  Pastoral care in schools: Promoting positive behaviour. This comprehensive guidance has always itemised desirable and undesirable behaviour including for example; adhering to the accepted conventions of courtesy and good manners, and (not) being unkind to their peers, including engaging in any form of bullying, calling out in class, interrupting others and being inattentive when others are contributing to the lesson.

This supremely sensible guidance has always been backed up by legal direction about what schools can and cannot do to control and require pupil behaviour. Circular 1998/25 also advises of legislation requiring the implementation of discipline policies in schools and provides additional support to schools in the matter of suspensions and expulsions.
Circular 1998/25 Promoting and sustaining good behaviour in schools: Summary of new legislative provisions

Schools will be very well aware of all of this and subsequent advice to schools and the need to have consulted and engaged with parents when implementing their individual discipline policies. The reality  for school leaders trying to implement this is however, much more nuanced and difficult to codify. Schools that are successful are characterised by positive pupil behaviour and buy in to the learning goals and collective ethos of the school community. Challenges now increasingly arise when negative behaviours by individual pupils threaten both their own learning but also the quality of experience of other pupils. This is when the legal constraints kick in and schools find that they can have quite limited scope under the code above to deal effectively with indiscipline.

The most effective route remains securing parental support for agreed standards of pupil behaviour and having their back up when pupils have to be called to account. The press often report cases now of this partnership breaking down and parents taking issue with discipline measures. While I think the regime described in the Michaela Community School sounds quite extreme, I can see what they are trying to achieve in looking for a calm, quiet, purposeful atmosphere. Their success seems to be their ability as a free school to require parental acquiescence to the strict discipline. In our schools in Northern Ireland I know teachers are proud of the high standards that characterise them most of the time and of the quality of examination outcomes achieved. This success story of a school in London rowing against the tide of, in their view, falling standards of pupil behaviour should encourage us to continue our traditional approach to discipline here and redouble our efforts to convince parents of its value and benefit to children.

This article is correct at 19/01/2022

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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