It’s another of those ideas in education that drives people into their camps.
For some, compliance or systems that generate compliant children are an outrage; children suppressed, their natural creativity crushed, their rights and freedoms denied, victims of authoritarian power structures that have no place in the modern world.
For others, compliance is a necessary pre-requisite for creating a disciplined working environment in which children can learn and anyone who questions that is a woolly prog, culpable for a decline in educational standards and the erosion of our nation’s moral fibre and backbone.
Over the last few years and months I have engaged with situations in schools – sometimes in the same school – where these two contrasting compliance phenomena appeared:
Too much compliance: students in teaching situations where it felt a bit ‘lights out nobody home’. This can be either a continual blood-out-of-stone classroom culture with students too inhibited to engage or be remotely spontaneous for fear of making mistakes or simply because it is not normal for them to voice their ideas. Or, where teachers are too nervous about letting go to the point that even a discussion in pairs feels like taking a risk. I’ve had Headteachers asking me to challenge teachers because they felt their staff had become too risk averse which then had consequences for stretching the top end.
Linked to this is the speed-camera syndrome where students turn on the compliance at strict schools (or in specific classrooms with certain teachers) but are not actually learning intrinsic behaviours. I’ve seen this in operation as a teacher, leader and parent. One former colleague was always complaining that, when her children attended a school very famous for its impeccable enforced behaviour, there was no sign that this followed them beyond the school gates – including when they came to her house!
Not enough compliance: classrooms (and corridors) where standards of behaviour are so poor that learning is inhibited and students safety and well-being are compromised. There are situations I wish I could beam people into when they complain about over-compliant behaviour systems; situations where it is absolutely obvious that the children need to be a whole lot more compliant; to do what they are told and allow the teacher to teach and the learners to learn. Situations where I would suggest that no teacher would take a class and then say that the children needed more freedom and less compliance.
It is absolutely obvious to me (from my 30 years experience in lots of contexts) that a foundation of a great school and great learning, is that there is a disciplined environment with an acceptance of the authority structure inherent in the roles teachers and other adults have in relation to the children they are responsible for. It’s also clear to me that discipline is absolutely compatible with warmth, love, care and respect – and this goes a bit deeper than whether students call you Sir or Nick.
Children are happier when they know where consistent boundaries are. I’ve never met a child who was happy to be constantly hitting the boundaries or one who felt secure when the boundaries (around learning or behaviour) fall down.
The challenge is to establish the level of compliance that fits the situation you are in – which is especially difficult when you have students that require very different levels of enforcement within one environment. There are hundreds of great schools which do not enforce silent corridors or run central detentions; where the inherent level of student compliance feels like willing cooperation at a level high enough for learning to flourish with light touch behaviour routines and a few simple rules. These schools are lovely. But it’s unreasonable to work there and then project that set of parameters as a universal values system. At other schools, it’s just absolutely necessary to direct student behaviour in a much more intense and controlling way – simply to keep order and to allow teachers across the experience and confidence range to function in their classrooms without drowning.
Another level of challenge is in the detail. Teachers are fallible. Injustices occur and these can be hard to resolve when your frontline policy is to back teachers to do their jobs at all costs. Children are emotional and do not always respond well to challenging situations including where they feel unfairly treated. It takes time to build a culture where children can feel listened to whilst also keeping boundaries tight. Again, it’s way way easier in some schools than in others. Sometimes the sheer scale of non-compliance is the issue alongside the complexities of sanctions and parental engagement – not always the idealised principles of what is right and wrong or fair.
My final thought here is that, whenever people feel uncomfortable with behaviour management systems that seem too strict for them, they should take a moment to imagine all the teachers around the country on the brink of tears or a breakdown because the students in front of them do not have enough self-discipline to allow learning to proceed, destroying lesson after lesson. Compliance is not a dirty word. There are degrees.
Ideally you want students to volunteer to behave well, coming willingly based on an understanding of the dynamics of the social world they are part of. But, it can be that students simply need to experience discipline that is imposed on them and learn to appreciate it through habit before they fully understand or support it at an intrinsic level. The challenge for leaders should be to explain this to students and parents so that the endpoint is always clear. It takes persistence, sensitivity to parental concerns and a bit of a thick skin to succeed.
Of course it’s complicated – I’m not doing the full behaviour system/school culture thing here. The solutions are out there. But they are complicated and context, as ever, is king.