Zero Tolerance in Schools

by Aaron Jones about a year ago in student

Are State Schools using Zero Tolerance Policies as a means of selection?

Zero Tolerance in Schools

There have been several reports this week of a speech given at the National Union of Teachers (N.U.T.) conference on the subject of Zero Tolerance Policies in schools; the subject was also debated on a episode of Channel Five's The Wright Stuff; this topic is of particular interest to me as I have recently changed my career and have been working in Pupil Referral Units (for anyone that isn't familiar with these, a Pupil Referral Unit is a specialist school for pupils that have been expelled from mainstream schools).

Zero Tolerance Policies, as the name suggests, allow schools to punish any infraction of the rules; examples given in the articles I have read, and in the debate on The Wright Stuff, include: pupils being put in Isolation for chewing gum, pupils being required to wear lanyards stating"I have 24 hours to sort out my uniform" for dress code violations, pupils being sent home for not wearing shoes that are completely black, among others.

In the speech given at the N.U.T. conference it is clear that many teachers are opposed to these policies; however, they are finding favour amongst Headteachers, and Ofsted (the organisation responsible for inspection and regulation of schools) encourage failing to adopt such policies.

The fact that schools that adopt these policies succeed I find unsurprising; after all, all they are doing is using the policies to select the pupils that will stay with them until the fifth form (now, I believe, called Year 11) and therefore will have the best chance to pass their G.C.S.E.s. As a result of this, the successful schools will be able to attract more funding (through sponsorship, from parents, etc.) and, as a result, more resources are given to the areas of less need; this is a little like saying "my car's spark-plugs are fine, but, my tyres are a problem, so, I'll put my funds into the spark-plugs and let the tyres fix themselves." That this is a form of selection as exclusive as the 11-plus is to me self-evident (hence the sub-title of this article); however, we have have to ask; is the purpose of the publicly funded state-school system?

I shall return to this point shortly; first I would like to examine some other comments made at the N.U.T. conference. In The Independent, Michael Holland is quoted as saying:

“Zero tolerance is intolerance. Zero tolerance doesn’t work. Zero tolerance is cruel, Victorian, Dickensian. It punishes working class children the most.
It punishes black children and children from black ethnic minority groups [they] are far more likely to be excluded from schools.”

I believe that further clarification is needed when Mr. Holland states that Zero Tolerance policies punish working-class children the most; as a child who was born to a working class family, I can say that my parents had very strict expectations of my behaviour (though, of course, as a child I didn't always live up to them); I was told on more that one occasion that "...good manners cost nothing..." If Mr. Holland is suggesting that working class children are intrinsically less well behaved, then I think he is making a lazy assumption; however, if he is saying that less well-off pupils and families will find it harder to comply with strict dress codes, then there may be some truth in that (and possibly a case to return to free school uniforms).

Likewise, when Mr. Holland states that Zero Tolerance Policies punish black children, I think we need to ask what Mr. Holland means. In my experience, B.E.M. families have no more or less expectations of their children's behaviour than do white families; however, it is well known that people from B.E.M. backgrounds are more likely to be targeted in "Stop and Search" policies, so, following the same principle, could B.E.M. children be disproportionately punished in schools (which would also beg the question, could the school/s be institutionally racist?)?

The final point that I would like to examine is that in the reports I have read of the speech, several teachers have described Zero Tolerance Policies as being a form of abuse. Abuse may be defined as any actions that restricts a person's rights or causes them harm. Given that Zero Tolerance Policies result in more pupils being expelled, and are thus denied a right to education, and that some teachers believe that these policies may be linked to an increase in mental illness amongst children, there certainly is the potential that these policies may be a form of abuse; however, abuse is a word that is used a lot now-a-days and it does cover a spectrum of actions; my concern is that the over-use of the word could result in it losing its strength. I believe these policies are short-sighted, unsupportive, and contrary to the purpose of publicly-funded state education, but I wouldn't define them as abuse (at least not until there is stronger evidence that they cause mental illness).

After considering all of the above, we have to ask: what is the purpose of publicly-funded state education? Does the education system exist solely to get a many pupils as possible through the exams? And what happens to the pupils that struggle to succeed within the system as it currently exists?

What follows is simply, and of necessity, my opinion of the current state of the education system and how it might develop.

There are two main ways to measure performance: Output Measures and Outcome Measures. I do think that measuring performance is important; how do we know if we're succeeding if we don't review our performance? However, it is also important to make sure that the measures used are valid. Under an Output system, it is the end result that is measured (e.g. how many pupils enter exams, how many achieve grade A, B, C etc.); under an outcome system the measures are focused on the Individual's journey through the system (an example might be whether a pupil's attendance improves through the scholastic year, or, whether a pupil's ability improves in a particular subject). The main advantage of the outcome-based system is that it allows us to identify what works and what doesn't work for an individual and tailor the service accordingly. However, Outputs are simple and easy to quantify and understand; politicians and managers like Outputs.

We should also ask why it is that some pupils struggle in the school environment. In some cases it may be that a pupil has a Learning Disability, which should be protected under the Equality Act 2010; however, I am aware that it can be easier to get blood from a stone than it is to get additional funding.

Some pupils may also face social challenges. It may be that they witness or are the subject of violence in the home, they may not be receiving an appropriate diet, or they may be in trouble with authority figures (in the reports that I read in preparation for this story, one case study cited a child who had to sleep in a bed with two others; the child was not able to sleep and, as a result, struggled at school). Given some of the challenges that some children face, can there be any wonder that they struggle to succeed at school? Then once they are in the school environment they are expected to either succeed or be expelled, which will only compound the stresses and strains they face (at least under the 11-plus system, the child could only be left with the idea that they lack intelligence. This form of rejection will also leave them with the idea that they are worthless).

So, what do I see as the way forwards for the education system? It would certainly be worth considering the following points:

  • Move performance measures from Output models to Outcome models that are focused on individual pupils. At the same time recognise that academic achievement is only one aspect of a pupil's journey. It seems equally important to me that children are taught to behave as the adult world expects. In doing this, we can address subjects that have been in the news recently, such as consent. If we can get the fundamentals of behaviour, coupled with a functional (rather than academic) knowledge of the 3 R's, then maybe, just maybe, the rest will follow
  • Provide schools with the resources to enable them to individualise the educational experience; this approach will need additional resources (though not as much as might be thought as the key aspect is the approach in pupil engagement), but it may save money in the long run as better educated people are less likely to fall into crime.
  • Finally, make expulsion the last possible resort. Create a system in which pupils know they are supported by the schools and that pupils realise that the schools recognise they have value and worth. Create a sense of pride and achievement with the pupils and they shall be more likely to want to engage in learning.

None of the above is original. Anyone who has watched the film To Sir, With Love should recognise these points. I don't know for certain that these points would work. I don't believe it has been tried, but I do know that a lot of children are falling by the wayside. If we are genuinely committed to creating a better society for tomorrow, then we need to try something to stop the disengagement in society and I think these must be worth a try.

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