There isn’t a teacher alive that would disagree with the following: a successful school must employ a clear, consistent behaviour policy.
Somewhere along the way, however, some schools have interpreted the statement above to mean that ‘zero tolerance’ towards behavioural infractions is the clearest and most consistent method of behaviour management. The problem is, the evidence suggests it just doesn’t work.
What is a zero-tolerance school behaviour policy?
A zero-tolerance behaviour policy often finds itself defined as a ‘no excuses’ behaviour policy – infractions are punished unflinchingly. Many schools that employ such behaviour policies take the same tack to both minor and major incidents. While easily capturing the compliance of a vast majority of students, those that ‘fail’ under such systems never have the underlying causes of behavioural concerns addressed. These students typically end up in ‘the booth‘ – which comes with its own draconian regime and a purposeful lack of stimulation and engagement that in itself (ironically) promotes acting out by troubled students.
From there? If a week/month/term-long stint in a booth doesn’t iron out that ‘behaviour problem’, the student is out of there, either by way of a managed move or being pressured into home-schooling.
Why do we set students with behavioural concerns up to fail?
Off-rolling: a failure of policy that also fails vulnerable young people
Off-rolling is the next ‘logical’ step in a ‘zero tolerance’ school. It’s typically sold under the guise of “the student can’t cope – they’re disrupting other learners”, which is code for: “this year 10 is going to ruin our GCSE results”.
Ofsted are savvy to the phenomenon of off-rolling ‘difficult’ students (which invariably and disproportionately targets disadvantaged and SEND pupils) and have pointed out that obvious instances of off-rolling wind up written into their report.
You’d think that this alone would be enough to scare most bad actors with a desire to remove the ‘undesirables’ (either by managed moves or in some cases, pressuring parents to consider home-schooling) into thinking twice, but it’s seemingly doing anything but. One in ten students disappeared from school rolls in 2017 (that’s well over 60,000 students) and just as Ofsted have pointed out, the majority are disadvantaged, SEND or FSM pupils.
It’s an indictment of zero-tolerance behaviour policies and schools that employ them and it fails the most vulnerable young people in our society: those we should be protecting the most.
Zero Tolerance: What’s the Alternative?
Most schools are not equipped to deal with the most challenging students. They lack the funds and facilities. For the most disenfranchised students, mainstream schools might simply be the wrong environment for them – yet good teachers persist and try their hardest to engage challenging students who, for a myriad reasons, simply don’t settle.
You don’t have to do much reading to hear the stories of how tiring yet rewarding working in a PRU can be – but once again, alternative provisions such as this require funding. Something not entirely abundant in the education system at the moment.
Unfortunately, the alternative isn’t clear. A behaviour policy that ditches zero tolerance goes a long way to avoiding sparks and conflict for every single infraction, but for consistent and repeated behavioural issues, it quickly becomes apparent that schools have very little power to deal with them. A stint in a booth quickly becomes a symptom of the problem and not a solution.
Relationships, facilities and the right staff in the right place are key to making sense of challenging student behaviour but it’s becoming ever more apparent (especially if you follow the often volatile discussions on Twitter) that the question of how to manage difficult, challenging and vulnerable students will continue to be a point of contention among educators.