Is your school a dystopian nightmare or a utopian land of promise?

Here are three examples of ‘evidence based practice’ that have emerged in schools over the last few years:

  • A school where if, as a small child, you appear bored in a debate you are given a fixed term exclusion. You will be placed in a separate room to eat on your own if your parents have not paid for your food. This is for your own good.
  • Schools where you cannot, as a child, clap to show appreciation. You cannot speak in the corridors. You must eat lunch with the same group of people every day. This is for your own good.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, a school where you must learn every day in the same ‘pod’ consisting of the same group of children regardless if one of them is someone you deeply dislike. You must learn to collaborate. This is for your own good.

I always find it curious when I hear these stories because they don’t sound like schools; they sound like dystopian nightmares. I realise that school itself is probably some kind of dystopian nightmare for most children but these examples seem to push it to the limit. Critics would argue that if you place the phrase: “This is for your own good” at the end of basically any behaviour policy in a school it might start to sound dystopian. So let’s try with one of mine:

  • If you fail to do your homework you will get a detention with the teacher. In that time you will read a book or have the task clarified if you struggled with it. This is for your own good.

Nope. That doesn’t sound dystopian; it sounds sensible. Let’s try another one that might be harder to make sound nice:

  • If you commit a more serious breach of the behviour policy on repeat occasions (for example shouting at staff or students in lessons) you will pick up litter in a high visibility jacket in the playground at lunch for a week.

Again, it doesn’t sound nice but it doesn’t sound dystopian- that is what happens in real life. I now have a little mantra “if it sounds dystopian, probably don’t do it to a child.” I think this is a good yardstick because I’ve seen robust behaviour management tackle serious problems in challenging contexts- where knives are being brought into school and students being sexually harassed by their peers the school must act. Weak behaviour policies lead to a different kind of dystopia which can ruin young people’s lives to save the adults engaging in moral dilemmas/allow them to go home early. Schools should prepare children for the realities of the outside world where sanctions aren’t written in your homework diary, they are put on your criminal record. However, we should balance this  with the understanding that, especially with diminished parental power in the schools system, educators must wield their responsibility with respect.

Defenders of extreme behaviour policies point to the results by way of justification. Here are the reasons that won’t work:

  • An ethical educator knows that grades are not the only important outcome for a child, whatever the research and the government might focus on.
  • Even if that weren’t the case, good outcomes in terms of grades do not justify any means necessary to get there. Like all public servants who are in positions of power and responsibility (think police, healthcare etc) we must balance the need for results with the inherent potential harms of the process. There is no easy (ethical) way to escape this point.
  • Even if you get good grades, you have to show that the results were a direct result of your extreme policy and nothing else. I won’t do a long piece about No Excuses Schools in the U.S but as well as their behaviour strategies they have a raft of after school clubs (which can have a significant effect size) and targeted interventions (ditto) that serve to explain their outcomes (see Dobbie, Fryer; 2011 on Harlem’s Promise Academy.)
  • Even if your extreme policy is directly producing your grades you must also show that a less extreme policy with no associated harms would also not have had the desired effect. Given that there are schools in the UK that get outstanding value added scores for children from all sorts of backgrounds (indeed there schools in the very same boroughs and cities, with larger cohorts, that do better) without this stuff, then what’s the particular benefit of this method?

Hopefully with enough effort every school can avoid becoming a dystopian nightmare and live up to its vision of becoming a utopian land of promise without placing some students in the basement on their own to get there.

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