Thursday, 8 September 2016

Is it fair to expect everyone to follow the rules?

I’ve never liked being told what to do. I’m not a great team player and I struggle with authority. I’ve always chafed at constraints and, as I get older, I’ve become increasingly aware that what I used to imagine was an over-developed sense of injustice is actually entitlement; a sense the world should bend itself around my whims and conform to my desires. Childish, isn’t it?

Part of being an adult is learning to suppress these baser aspects of our nature and this is something I attempt, often with negligible success, to do. I’ve come to realise that if I want to avoid being told off or controlled then I need to follow the rules before I’m asked, before they’re enforced. As Bob Dylan put it, “…to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

The great majority of students in the schools I’ve worked seem to grasp this unpalatable, but essential truth far more quickly then I did. They know that if they keep their heads down they’ll be left alone to be as they please. But a significant minority are more like me; they need help to learn how to live in the world. Learning how to harness your desire to rail at perceived injustices – knowing when it’s worth making a stand and when it’s better to wind your necks in – can be hard. Part of the role of schools is to provide a safe environment to make mistakes, learn about responsibility and consequences, and prepare to take a full and active part in society. This is the hidden curriculum. As Tom Bennett says, “We don’t just teach [students] lessons in their subjects. We help to teach them good conduct, habits of character, civility, cooperation, community.”

School rules can often seem arbitrary. We can point to strict uniform policies or injunctions against running in corridors, eating out-of-bounds or having to ask for permission to leave a classroom and say, but that’s not what it’s like in the real world. And, by and large, it’s not. As an adult you get to go to the loo whenever you want (unless you’re a teacher.)  But every organisation will have some rules, however loose, and the consequences for breaking them will, ultimately, result in sacking.

If it were up to me (and thankfully it isn’t) we’d only have rules to prevent people from causing harm to non-consenting others. But children are not, yet, adults. We don’t want them to suffer the same consequences as adult transgressors so neither do we give them the same freedoms. These arbitrary rules are a thin red line, marking the boundaries between childhood and adulthood. Teenagers make mistakes, it’s part of the deal. Some will push against these boundaries wherever they are and making them about uniform means they’re not about wearing at staff.

What we permit we promote and what we accept we signal is acceptable. Making rules about things we don’t really care about means teenagers are less likely to push back about things we actually care about. If they exhaust themselves in trying to sneak in contraband socks or hitch skirts up half an inch them they’ll have less energy for more barbarous acts.

So, what should happen when students make a mistake? Should they be punished? You may feel squeamish about the word but we need rewards and sanctions if we are to learn what’s acceptable. We need to suffer the sting of making a mistake to ensure we learn not make it again. Should the punishment be proportionate? Yes, of course. Certainly of consequences is far more important than severity. But punishment should be meted out with the knowledge that sparing the metaphorical rod may spoil the child. If we don’t sweat the small stuff, everyone will get much sweatier in the long run.

But surely there are always exceptions? There are always those who have perfectly valid reasons for failing to follow a rule so shouldn’t they be spared the consequences of their actions? This is entirely up to them. Do they seek to use their reason as an excuse? Or do they ask for help in overcoming their problem? This is about developing a sense of responsibility. If I’m late to work for reasons beyond my control I have a choice. I can stroll in and hope no one notices or I can phone my employer to explain what’s happened. If my house burns down and I have no clean clothes I can either pitch up belligerently in smoked stained rags or I can ask for help.

Schools have a duty of care, and when students have good reason for not being able to follow the rules they must not be tyrannised; they must be helped to avoid using their reasons as excuses. Parents have a duty to make every effort to support a school’s rules. To do otherwise is to undermine the hidden curriculum and by extension, the one that’s judged in headline figures too. Students are in school to learn – about subjects and about how to fit into the world. Some students will need more support than others, either because parents are unwilling or unable to support or because they’re ability to understand how to follow the rules is in some way impaired.

Everything schools do should support students’ education, even if it doesn’t always make sense to individuals. It’s hard to get this right and schools, as well as students, will get it wrong at times. We all make mistakes and we all need to be helped to learn from them. Giving some people a pass because we feel they can’t cope or don’t understand doesn’t do them any favours. So, yes, everyone should be expected to follow the rules. Even – maybe especially – ‘those kids’.

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