Pupils at Williamwood High School sit prelim exams on February 5, 2010 in Glasgow, Scotland © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Can strict schools save poor children?

Strong discipline mixed with reassurance from teachers has turned round schools. But critics say it's too harsh
September 3, 2020

Classical music played softly through the classroom as 10 children sat calmly working at their desks. Some read poetry, others wrote essays on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Days before the pandemic forced Great Yarmouth Charter Academy to close its doors this spring, I watched its headmaster, Ian Mackintosh, move between desks dishing out encouragement: stopping to discuss one girl’s paper, praising a boy for working well. You might never have guessed this was the isolation room for children removed from class for misbehaving, in a once notoriously chaotic school.

Three years ago, when the Inspiration Trust academy chain took over, this school was in special measures. “It was a school where the teachers were scared to step out of their rooms and children dictated what happened,” said Mackintosh, who became the head in February. (He’s since been promoted again to executive principal, with a new head starting under him in September.) Mackintosh taught at the school in its previous incarnation, before moving on to the trust’s headquarters as head of inclusion: “The then-head was assaulted by a pupil in the corridor,” he recalls, “full on hit in the face. I remember going upstairs into a classroom where a child was having a cigarette. We had so many great children who were having to misbehave for their own safety around other children.”

The incoming trust first installed Barry Smith, co-founder of the famously strict Michaela free school in northwest London, as a turnaround head. What followed made headlines nationwide. Smith drew up a long set of rules based on the Michaela methods, banning everything from slouching and talking in corridors to so-called “meet me at McDonald’s” haircuts (long on top, short at the sides). Children were told they had to make sure they got to bed by 9.30pm; to stop anyone feigning illness in class, it was reportedly suggested in a now deleted message to parents that those claiming to feel sick be offered a bucket to vomit in. Although these new rules were rescinded within days of reaching journalists, dozens of alarmed parents removed their children.

Yet two years on from a process Mackintosh describes as “like ripping off a plaster,” the school was rated good by Ofsted and its GCSE results have markedly improved, something he attributes to teachers now being able to actually teach. “My first lesson here, I planned an hour’s work and got to teach about 10 minutes of it—the rest was firefighting. Now if you don’t get 55 to 57 minutes of teaching time I’d be surprised.”

This autumn, children across the country will return to newly Covid-proofed classrooms, after going six months without the routine and structure of school life. Some will have worked diligently online from home but others may have almost completely lost the habit of formal education, or be questioning the point of it. Some might have flourished thanks to one-to-one attention from a parent, but the most vulnerable will have lost the only stable and predictable place they knew. British schools are often criticised for perpetuating inequality. But the pandemic, alongside the government’s hapless attempts to determine A-level and GCSE grades fairly in the absence of exams, shows how much worse things could be without them. The Education Endowment Foundation, a charity working to break the link between family income and school achievement, estimates the virus may have wiped out a decade’s work on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor. Compounding the daunting task of getting a generation of children back on track is the simultaneous practical challenge of enforcing new rules to protect them from Covid-19. All of which means a long-brewing debate over the role discipline, behaviour and routines play in raising academic standards—particularly among the poor white boys who are now close to the bottom of the table in many statistics—is once again bubbling up.

Even before the pandemic, the emerging battleground inside English and Welsh schools wasn’t over governance structures—the academy or free school reforms dominating the Blair and Cameron years—or whether children should study Dryden. It has been over the nature of children themselves: why they misbehave, and how to discipline them. It’s attractive terrain for a government both itching to pick symbolic fights with what they see as woolly liberal pedagogy, and peppered with veterans of Michael Gove’s combative period as education secretary. (Boris Johnson’s all-powerful aide Dominic Cummings and Rachel Wolf, co-author of the Tory manifesto, are both former advisers to Gove.) Compared to other kinds of interventions, it’s also suspiciously cheap to implement. But walk around England’s fading coastal communities and struggling towns, listen to the stories of headteachers like Ian Mackintosh, and you begin to wonder whether there’s more to this than just political posturing.

Advocates of what’s become known as a “warm-strict” ethos—strict rules, softened by reassuring teacher engagement—say it keeps children safe while freeing teachers to teach. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has praised the kind of culture that comes from banning mobile phones (something many schools already do) and enforcing “silent corridors” where children can’t talk while moving between classes. Later this year, the Department for Education is expected to launch a behaviour taskforce led by the ex-teacher Tom Bennett, offering help to schools struggling to keep children in order.

[su_pullquote]"Advocates of the warm-strict ethos—strict rules, softened by reassuring teacher engagement—say it keep children safe and frees teachers to teach"[/su_pullquote]

The phrase warm-strict was originally coined by the American teacher Doug Lemov, whose bestselling 2010 book (updated in 2015) Teach Like a Champion details techniques borrowed from observing schools that were getting unexpectedly good results in deprived urban neighbourhoods.

Champion teachers, according to Lemov, have very high expectations and very clear rules. They turn everyday tasks like distributing worksheets into highly efficient, strictly standardised routines, maximising the time available for actually teaching. They demand concentration by teaching kids to “Slant”-—Sit up, Listen, Ask questions (when appropriate), Nod your head, and Track the teacher with your eyes. They’re firm disciplinarians, yet supportive and encouraging. A teacher might explain they’re only giving a detention because they care about the child doing well.

At Great Yarmouth, I watched a young teacher leading a middle-ability English set through Romeo and Juliet using methods straight from this playbook. First, he literally counted the children down into a “Slant,” then spelled out exactly what they should say about the play in order to get top marks. Next he asked them to write notes while he repeated it all over again (repetition is key to the Lemov method). The class was admirably calm, if rather joyless.

This method has friends in high places. Cummings has argued on his blog that every teacher should watch Lemov’s training videos; another avowed fan, Munira Mirza, is head of Downing Street’s policy unit and was a board member at Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE), an outfit summoned into being to support the Gove reforms. It’s hardly the only way of getting children to behave well—advocates of what are often described as “child-centred” or “trauma-informed” education say their methods are gentler but effective—but Lemov’s ideas tick policymaking boxes. Where it differs from behaviour crackdowns touted in the New Labour years is in offering a simple, easily scaled-up formula that doesn’t rely on expensive training or outstanding practitioners.

“There’s no doubt that there are some very successful schools that say they don’t do warm-strict,” conceded Mark LeHain, a former free school head who led PTE until he resigned to stand as a Conservative candidate at the last election. “The question is: is that the most efficient way of doing it?… We have to be realistic and say we have finite resources and teachers have only so much time and energy, and how do we get the most incredible culture in the most efficient way? And I just haven’t seen a better approach.”

“Finite resources” is putting it mildly. Under Tory austerity measures, English schools and colleges suffered the sharpest spending squeeze in decades, even as pupil numbers rose. Specialist support, like extra classroom assistants for children with special and behavioural needs, was cut along with the SureStart programmes that helped prepare toddlers for school. Welfare cuts had pushed many stressed families to the brink even before a coronavirus-induced crash sent food bank use soaring; some children with mental health problems were already waiting up to six months for treatment before the pandemic hit the NHS. And headteachers had been left tackling social problems from knife crime to the so-called “county lines” network of urban drug dealers expanding into rural towns.

It’s unclear, however, whether the rise in exclusion rates over the last four years—there were 410,800 temporary so-called fixed-term exclusions in 2017-8, and 7,900 children permanently kicked out—reflect these pressure cooker social conditions, or merely a change in the law under David Cameron, which strengthened heads’ powers to exclude. Bennett, a softly-spoken Scot with a dry sense of humour who was first appointed by the education secretary Nicky Morgan in 2015 to review behaviour in challenging schools, thinks classrooms are in some ways safer than they were in the 1970s. Homophobic bullying is, for example, taken far more seriously. But he found many schools continue to struggle with the kind of irritating, low-level disruption that never quite merits being sent home but still interrupts everyone else’s learning: swearing, throwing objects, interrupting and arguing. In teacher training, he said, controlling the classroom had often been an afterthought: “It goes back to the [assumed] case that children behave well naturally, and want to learn, and essentially it’s society that gets in the way. I got a 45 minute lecture on behaviour management and the idea was ‘you’ll pick it up on the job.’”

Yet this almost Rousseau-esque view of children does not, he suggested, prepare teachers for the reality. “Some children do come from circumstances where it will have been explained [to them] how to wait their turn and share and be kind; how to do their best, try hard, look after people—all those skills that you take for granted. Other children come from circumstances where they haven’t been so fortunate.” He found that successful schools teach behaviour as explicitly as maths, with children shown what to do before practising it repeatedly. “They’re actually going through it like it was a learning experience—this is how we behave in assembly, this is how we expect the lesson to go, this is how you behave on a school trip; not just saying ‘we need you to behave’ which means different things to different people.”

So far, so uncontroversial. But what has dramatically polarised the debate over the last year is the use of isolation rooms—where children must work in silence, away from classmates but under a teacher’s supervision—to punish bad behaviour. The small but vocal campaign group Ban the Booths has called for an outright ban on isolation booths (cubicles partitioned so that children can’t make eye contact with each other) and more transparency about how schools use the punishment.

Bennett is sceptical about reported horror stories that suggest what he prefers to call “removal rooms” are being deployed for trivial reasons, like forgetting a pen. “Children are not removed from the classroom for not having a pen. They’re removed for telling the teacher to eff off or throwing chairs at people. You can’t leave them in a corridor; they should be in a supervised place where they’re asked to do work.”

Yet critics believe these methods are pushing those who can’t conform (including some children with special educational needs) out of mainstream education. Advocates of “trauma-informed” school practice argue that repeatedly disruptive children are usually driven by scarring personal experiences—a parent with addiction problems, say, or extreme poverty and neglect—and kicking them out of class only compounds their distress. What they need, the trauma-informed camp argues, is teachers prepared to build the kind of secure relationships they may be missing at home.

“What the warm-strict ideology, in some of the more extreme processes, conveys to young teachers is you are there to convey this canon of knowledge to young people and if they don’t listen to you in the way you would like—three warnings and out,” said Colin Diamond, professor of educational leadership at the University of Birmingham. “It will result in more exclusions… What it’s doing is saying ‘unless you conform, unless you can behave and dress in what we believe is the right way, you are ‘othered.’’” On one school visit, Diamond was shocked to find two shabby-looking boys sent out of class for not having the correct uniform; the last thing children in poverty need, he argues, is to be publicly shamed if their parents can’t afford regulation shoes.

Since schools don’t have to publish statistics on so-called internal exclusions (when children are removed from class, but not sent home) it’s impossible to know for certain how widespread such heavy-handed punishments are. But given the impact on children who genuinely struggle to control their emotions through no fault of their own, are there ways to control behaviour effectively but less crudely?

[su_pullquote]“Children are not removed from the classroom for not having a pen. they’re removed for telling the teacher to eff off or throwing chairs at people”[/su_pullquote]

Swindon Academy serves one of the most deprived estates in the country, with over half its mainly white working-class pupils coming from families poor enough to qualify the school for extra money through the pupil premium. When its current head Ruth Robinson arrived eight years ago, the school was classed as requiring improvement and sinking fast; now it tops local league tables, is rated good by Ofsted and steers sixth-formers towards Russell Group universities. Warmly approachable in person, Robinson nonetheless came with a formidable reputation for turning around struggling schools in Oxford and Birmingham. “When I came I spoke to the governors, I looked at the estates and I said ‘I want generational change,’” she told me. “I want to change things for these children, but I want these children to be different parents. I want them to go to university but I also want them to come back to Swindon and have chances to change things here.”

She asked both teachers and pupils—for nobody feels more strongly about chaotic classroom conditions than those who -suffer because of them, she argues—to help her draw up 10 basic rules, ranging from listening to the teacher to trying hard. Breaking them once earns a warning; do it twice, and the child is sent out of class. Almost overnight, over half the disruption fizzled out but that left the harder cases; children -determined to push the boundaries, battling their own demons or with difficult home lives. “Any good behaviour system does expose the most vulnerable children, it really does,” said Robinson.

What makes Swindon Academy special, however, is that while Robinson calls Lemov’s book her “bible,” her teachers are also trained in trauma-informed practices. No child gets sent to its removal room—a classroom where half the desks and chairs face one wall and half the other, minimising the potential for distraction—without first passing through the pastoral unit, where they get a chance to calm down and explain what happened. What happens next, she said, depends on the child: “If there’s somebody who has child protection issues or they’re going through a huge problem, they may well be taken off somewhere before you go into isolation, or they may go somewhere different for part of the day. Or if that child does go to isolation, they may [pop] out for a walking talking therapy or time out.” The aim, she said, was to do whatever was necessary to help children serve out their time in the removal room successfully. Children repeatedly removed from class are referred to the senior team to see what the teachers are missing; could there be an undiagnosed learning difficulty or problem at home?

Robinson encourages teachers to defuse trouble in advance. “You are looking in a child’s eyes so you can see as they walk in—you might say ‘is everything OK today? Have you had a bad lesson?’ and that can cut the anger. If you have a child that finds the work difficult you might say ‘I’m going to help you today.’”

The behaviour regime isn’t the only thing she changed, but Robinson insisted that without it, nothing else she did would have worked. “These children are already disadvantaged; if you double-disadvantage them by letting their lessons be disrupted, they’re never going to catch up. We have to care enough to do what needs to be done,” she said, pointing out that parents in her community can’t afford extra tutoring. “When we get [written off] as ‘zero tolerance,’ uncaring people who don’t want Send (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) children in their school—for me that’s a huge injustice.” The caricature wrongly “presumes” things about “what we do,” and also assumes “everyone taking a hard line doesn’t care.”

Talking to Robinson, it was clear what LeHain meant by saying that warm-strict doesn’t work without the warmth. If the fashion for discipline really takes hold, the next big challenge for schools is recognising where strictness itself becomes counter-productive.

Dame Rachel de Souza is nobody’s soft touch. A steelworker’s daughter from Scunthorpe who admits to being a “quite rebellious 15-year-old” herself, she grew up to be a head with a knack for managing similarly rebellious children. Now chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, overseeing Great Yarmouth Charter Academy among other schools, she’s proud of what has been achieved there but said the next step for the institution would be learning to let go just a little: “They’re passionate about their systems because it’s changed their teaching life. They’ll say ‘three years ago we couldn’t teach and now we can.’” But more varied approaches are needed, she explained, as the school moves from restoring basic order to the more complex task of building aspiration.

De Souza herself avoids the phrase “warm-strict,” on the grounds that it suggests everything can be reduced to one universal formula when to her, managing behaviour is more art than science. Even within the trust, she argued, tactics vary widely; the hardball approach in Great Yarmouth would have been like “taking a hammer to crack a nut” at its sister school in more affluent Cromer. And if anything, she said, the trust is moving away from rigid approaches towards something bespoke. “We are starting to see younger teachers come through thinking ‘I transmit knowledge, and [then] the systems are there to deal with behaviour,’ and we’ve tried quite hard to counter that. One of the things that creates mature teachers is the ability to work with people, build relationships.” When we spoke, she was busy developing plans to set up specialist units for children excluded from the trust’s schools, tackling underlying reasons for their behaviour and getting them back in mainstream classes, and to hire an in-house educational psychologist.

Which puts Barry Smith’s resignation this January in an intriguing light. All De Souza would say is that earlier this year the trust’s heads “came together and said ‘perhaps where we [as a trust] have such tight control of things like performance and finance, we need to do this around behaviour and inclusion.’” But rumours that Smith’s hardline style had fallen out of favour were hardly dispelled when he was replaced by Ian Mackintosh, a specialist in bringing difficult children back into the fold.

Having grown up locally himself, Mackintosh said his most soul-destroying moment as a teacher came when talking to one boy about what he wanted to do when he left school. “He said ‘there’s no jobs, my dad doesn’t work and I’ll just do the same as him.’ It was that there wasn’t anything in Yarmouth and he couldn’t do anything, because he was from here.” His plan now is to open the children’s eyes to broader horizons and bigger futures. After three painful years of ripping off plasters, let’s hope the scars can begin to heal.