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Steve Turnbull
December 2016.
317
Do strict school regimes produce a conformist mindset in their students?
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By “strict”, people usually mean behaviour and discipline. The research around behaviour management tells you that it has some effect but not at a whole school level. It has more of an impact when it focuses on particular groups of pupils and on a relatively short-term basis. Often the causes behind what’s seen as problematic behaviour are from outside the school, about a particular need a child might have. It’s often about finding intervention strategies for those particular groups and then reintegrating them back into the classroom.

There’s a common-sense approach that if there’s a behaviour issue in a classroom then that will affect the whole class, and if you deal with that then you will improve the teaching, but it will only take you so far. When a new leadership team is brought into a school, often their first focus is on behaviour. They’ll use an enforcement of uniform rules as a sign of a change of approach, for example, but there’s no evidence at all that wearing uniform makes any difference. Having a strict behaviour regime works to a degree but unless you then focus on teaching and learning it’s not going to lead to achievement and engagement for students. If you talk to headteachers of schools that are regarded as successful in terms of league tables and OFSTED inspection results, they tend to talk much more about rewarding good behaviour than about sanctioning bad behaviour. It’s about having high expectations and celebrating success and learning rather than leaning too much on detention or behaviour strategies.

Homework is another one of the things that get clamped down on, like uniform. Countries in the world that do very well in international comparisons, particularly in Asia, tend to give lots of homework but if it’s just brought in alongside negative strategies then it’s less likely to work with the kids that most need it. It’s much more successful to build relationships with students, and get them wanting to focus on learning and homework.

“Employers are always complaining that young people don’t have creative or independent-learning skills. A strict school regime will prevent those skills being developed.”

Besides, those same countries that are doing well, such as Korea, have been focusing for some years on improving young people’s creativity, and that’s the other side of this question. Employers are always complaining that young people don’t have the creative or independent-learning skills that are needed for employment and a strict school regime will prevent those skills being developed. There’s lots of research around how to develop a more creative curriculum – the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson is the big name there and he’s very convincing in how he talks about how creativity needs to be developed.

There’s an inherent conformity in our schools anyway. A lot of drilling goes on, for SATS in primary school and then for GCSEs in secondary, and one of the worries is that that’s increasing. There’s a question over whether the recent changes to GCSE are preparing young people for the future or are looking backwards too much. The current government’s policy around bringing back grammar schools shows that certain sectors have a hankering for traditional models of education, even though there isn’t the evidence to back up that policy. And the coursework that’s been removed from the GCSE syllabus is much more like the way people work than exams: you collaborate and you’re allowed to ask questions, rather than cramming everything in for assessment at the end of the year. The good news is that teachers are very good at finding ways around proscription, and helping to develop young people’s other skills. When you go into a good school you can always tell that that’s one of the things they’re doing.