The Return of School Discipline – why children should be free.

by Deborah Talbot


No, not canes and shouting, but something altogether more subtle and certainly troubling. It has been reported that St George the Martyr Primary School in London  has a policy whereby children, when they walk in corridors, have to clasp their hands behind their backs. The headteacher, whose inspiration it was, calls in the ‘university walk’, which is odd because these are children and students at university don’t walk in this way. It has about as much logic (that is, none) as hearing a teacher shout at a five-year-old for having his hands in his pockets. What is it all about?

It has long been an observation of theorists of social control – I’m thinking here of people like Stan Cohen, David Garland, Loïc Wacquant – that social insecurity breeds punitivity. In our society, after the most recent slump, insecurity has been rife, fear set loose, and under these conditions rationality and liberality slip away.

In our schools, currently, there is a creeping normativity afoot. I’m not talking about the endless testing and exams, although these set the frame for what happens in schools. Nor am I talking about the seeming endless desire to make former army personnel teachers, although I’m sure that is simply a symbolic expression of the normative environment. This is not a reference to the bizarre and punitive performance management systems that seem to be the vehicle for bullying and eradicating talented and independent teachers.

What I’m talking about is the weird behavioural modification techniques being applied to very young children, without so much as a half-hearted assessment of their impact. The paraphernalia of control includes the traffic light system, rainbows, clouds and thunderclouds, and other forms of reward and shaming systems that get dangled in front of primary school children. There is also the ‘habits of mind’, the kind of panorama of psychological management that would make Foucault turn in his grave. Then there are a series of low-level inducements – taking home the teddy bear if you did something good, certificates, stickers, and even sweets.

The traffic light cum sun and thunderclouds system was an offshoot of the Golden Time method of behaviour management. Predicated on the idea that children need visual clues to understand ‘good’ behaviour, it shows a sun and clouds, and children stay in the sun if they are good, and start moving to the clouds if they aren’t following the rules. There is much about this on the net, but this example shows its intent:

This behaviour chart encourages consistency of sanctions. The behaviour is noted and immediately dealt with. There is an opportunity to correct and reverse and we start afresh every day with all the children in the sun section. The children can see their decision visually and do something about it. The responsibility is theirs and they strive to stay near the sun. Over the six weeks the change in behaviour during input time has been measurable. The children are much more engaged and we do not have to spend lots of time with interruptions as simply walking towards the chart with your eyes looking at a particular child is sometimes enough!

Teachers often argue that they need these forms of behaviour management to control behaviour in large class sizes, particularly in inner city areas (the ‘problem’ kids and their ‘problem’ families). However, it is a system based on public shaming, fear and competitive rewards. The charts and the children’s names are pinned up on a wall for everyone to see. The kids fear dropping down to a cloud, particularly if they have no behaviour problems to start with, and the impending fear of public shaming can, in my view, produce anxiety and other emotional difficulties. We might argue that competition is good, but it also stresses people out, including and perhaps particularly so, young children. Finally, the rules are often uncertain, meaning that children are constantly reaching for the ‘out of reach’ (hmm, much like the consumer society?). I also guess it’s pretty time-consuming for teachers to work out when to reward behaviour or not, and what kinds of behaviour, and for whom. Perhaps that’s why it’s so inconsistently applied?

It is also necessary to ask, why all the fear about ‘bad’ behaviour? Behaviour is partly a developmental issue and partly about social values as to what constitutes ‘normal’. It carries constructions about societies fears about itself, which are then put on our children. It is also about parent’s time, and it is easy enough, as a stressed parent, to reach for a reward system when things seem out of control, as they so often do with very young children (as well as older ones). It sometimes seems as if children’s ‘bad’ behaviour is more about how much time we have to invest in them and their rhythms than anything being intrinsically amiss.

Most fundamentally, however, I would argue that such behaviour management systems are about creating one form of model citizen for advanced capitalist economies. A reflection can be found in performance management for teachers in school, where compliance is valued over competence. Increasingly, it seems our society values above all else a standard of normativity that is about non-resistant, passive consumerism. It wants us to be suitable and prepared for a world of work that aims at obedience, not ingenuity and critical thinking. And while this pattern of compliance rolls itself out through all our institutions of society, it ironically is self-defeating, because it stands in direct contradiction to everything advanced capitalist societies are supposed to excel at – creativity, innovation, entrepreneurism, all of which requires critical thinking and risk taking. Put simply, a certain amount of acting up and general cheekiness is a symptom of a lively and free mind. Perhaps our anxiety is getting the better of us? Or maybe it is simply a reflection of inequality, with compliance for the ‘plebs’ and critical thinking for the elite?

I recently read a book called Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It had the rather off-putting subtitle of, ‘Why everything we think about raising our children is wrong’, although I assume that was the marketing people talking, because it was a fairly good review of recent research in child development and neuroscience. It made a pretty convincing case for thinking that education needs to be orientated around self-motivated systems of effort. It argues that children need more sleep. That aggression is often expressed by very socialised kids and is just their way of making it in the world (so why stymie their efforts?). It explains why programmes for gifted students are pointless (because they haven’t finished developing yet). Finally, that if kids are self-directed in their learning they are less disruptive (the authors site the TOOLs programme, but it is much like the Montessori system, which eschews behavioural modification systems). Or, as AA Gill argues, we could just leave children alone.

I don’t know if the research in Nurture Shock is right, but if it is, we are on an odd track in education policy currently, along with some of the ideas that seem to dominate within it, almost by default and contingency. Ideology aside, our schooling system seems beset with panic. Perhaps we all need to relax, not worry quite so much about behaviour, focus instead on engaging children with stuff they are interested in, and give them freedom. The evidence supports this approach, it seems, and it is one that seems best calculated to meet the social challenges of a changing world.


Deborah Talbot is a freelance qualitative research and journalist, writing about society, culture and all things urban. She has recently set up a new blog Interurban Lines.

Categories: Rethinking The World, Sociology of Education, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *