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Apostle of permissiveness: A.S. Neill, founder of the progressive Summerhill School and best-selling author 

Halfway through my first year as a history teacher at an inner-city comprehensive in England, I am reeling from the volley of abuse and misbehaviour that makes up my daily grind. I can be sure that at some point in my day I will be aggressively confronted, blithely disobeyed, and probably sworn at. Restless nights are common, and nervousness ongoing. Still, talking to my friends from teacher training, I feel I'm having a comparatively easy ride. I have not yet been physically assaulted, and so far I have avoided the much-feared mid-lesson breakdown. 

At schools such as this, the deprived background of the children is routinely presented as a catch-all explanation for bad behaviour. The pupils' chaotic home lives, their lack of prospects, and an absence of aspiration in the local community are all popular excuses for the pandemonium that pervades inner-city schools. These factors undoubtedly have an effect, but such thinking lets schools like this off the hook. The endemic discipline problem within the state sector is in reality self-inflicted. At least half a century of "progressive" thinking on pupil behaviour has had disastrous consequences. In the competitive field of follies wrought by 1960s radicalism, there is a very good case for progressive education being the most socially destructive.

My school's discipline problem is depressingly normal. A survey last October for the Guardian Teacher Network — hardly a bastion of old-fashioned disciplinarians — found that 40 per cent of teachers complained of being bullied by pupils and, of those who considered quitting, 50 per cent named pupil behaviour as the reason. A 2010 National Union of Teachers (NUT) survey found that 92 per cent of teachers believed pupil behaviour had worsened over the course of their career, and 79 per cent claimed that they were unable to teach effectively because of poor behaviour. During the last school year, 44 teachers were hospitalised with severe injuries from pupil attacks at a five-year high. Perhaps most worryingly of all, a 2008 Policy Exchange report showed that the atrocious reputation of British schools for poor behaviour was the main factor in deterring new graduates from becoming teachers. 

Despite the recent arrival of an energetic new head, my school's results remain stubbornly unimpressive. It is strikingly obvious to me and many of my colleagues that the fundamental impediment to pupils learning is a lack of classroom discipline. However, when I suggested this to a member of senior management at a training session, he winced at the very word "discipline". "Right," he said swallowing uncomfortably, "behaviour for learning" — this being the trendy euphemism, modishly abbreviated to B4L, favoured by schools too right-on to use the D-word. How, I wondered to myself, did British education get to a state where discipline is a dirty word?

In an essay on education written in 1961, the political theorist Hannah Arendt foresaw the steady erosion of discipline in Western schools. She wrote: "The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition." If this was a problem in 1961, it is a catastrophe in 2012.

Since Arendt wrote her essay, legions of progressive educators have denied the need for authority in schools. The permissive rhetoric of 1960s radicalism was particularly influential among teachers, and their ideological precepts were applied to classroom culture. The undisputed leader of this "progressive" movement in Britain was A.S. Neill, founder of the revolutionary Summerhill School. Neill documented his philosophy in his 1962 book Summerhill, a runaway success which sold more than two million copies. In it he claimed, "I believe that to impose anything by authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion — his own opinion — that it should be done."

After the 1960s, radical educationists who subscribed to this thinking began their long march through the institutions. The idea of child-led learning came to dominate our teacher-training colleges and classrooms. Such thinking claimed that teachers should never coerce pupils to learn against their will, but instead place them in a situation where they can learn for themselves. The favoured description of a teacher's job changed from "teaching" to "facilitating". The rhetoric of child-led education was, and still is, extremely seductive, but it has failed to deliver. It is premised upon a fatally misplaced assumption that pupils can be relied upon to know what is best for them. The practical consequence of this utopian thinking has been the consistent fall in standards of British state education.

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, British comprehensive schools gained their reputation for ill-discipline and low expectations. One of the most articulate critics of these developments was the poet, teacher and literary critic, Brian Cox. Born in Grimsby and raised on Milton and Methodism, Cox was a working-class intellectual of the old school. Together with such luminaries as Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest he edited the Black Papers — a series of strident attacks on the changes happening in British education. In his 1992 memoir The Great Betrayal, Cox wrote that "the abdication of authority by teachers has fundamentally damaged our society".  

By the late 1980s, British comprehensives had become synonymous with chaotic indiscipline. A survey carried out in 1987 by the Professional Association of Teachers found that 94 per cent of teachers believed indiscipline was becoming more commonplace, 86 per cent believed that classroom violence was increasing, 80 per cent had been subjected to verbal abuse, and 32 per cent had been physically attacked by a pupil. For many, the link between the crisis in British schools and the radical ideas which preceded it was unambiguous. As Cox wrote in 1992: "Today the breakdown of discipline in inner-city comprehensives is a direct result of the sicknesses which afflicted the schools in the 1960s."

Tory reforms of this period focused on applying free-market principles to the running of schools, but allowed the philosophy of schooling to remain largely in the hands of progressive educators. By the time New Labour came to power, the inheritors of 1960s radicalism had firmly embedded themselves in the institutions, and progressive ideas about education received a new lease of life. The later director of Demos and leading light in Labour policy circles, Tom Bentley, wrote Learning Beyond The Classroom in 1998. On the topic of discipline he claimed: "Expecting young people automatically to accept someone's authority because they are in a position of power is unrealistic, as well as unhealthy."

It was these progressive orthodoxies that suffused the PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) training I received to qualify as a teacher. While at university, I received next to no lessons on classroom management. When we challenged our tutors on this point, the answer was always the same: as long as you get the other things right (pupil motivation, interesting lessons, positive thinking), behaviour should fall into place. We were not alone in this worrying omission: according to a 2008 NUT survey the majority of teachers have never received training in behaviour management. Considering just how much pupil behaviour dominates the concerns of a new teacher, this finding is startling. 

The sole session I did receive on behaviour management consisted not of discussing practical methods, but instead pondering the "root cause" of bad behaviour. "What is more important," we were asked, "in explaining bad behaviour at schools: absent fathers, or children not eating a healthy breakfast?" Such sessions seemed more concerned with making armchair sociologists of us than effective classroom teachers. 

Thus prepared, I was sent to an inner-city comprehensive where 37 per cent of the pupils qualify for free school meals and 42 per cent of the pupils have special educational needs. What I did not anticipate, though, was that the ethos of the school would actively militate against ensuring good discipline. The senior leadership team openly states their dislike of "complicit" pupils. As a result, the head walks the corridors with all of the authority of a dinner lady. In the staff room we trade stories of the complete lack of respect pupils have for our leader: "I saw him knocked over by two year nines!"; "Bradley in year 11 told him to fuck off, and walked away blowing kisses!" At a staff training evening, the head offered a defence of his outlook. He drew the hysterical moral equivalence between a compliant student and an obedient German soldier in Hitler's army. For him, good behaviour is oppression, strictness akin to fascism. 

According to the doctrine of child-centred education, we teachers should prevent misbehaviour by honing our lessons and teaching style. We are endlessly told that a good teacher is tough on the causes of misbehaviour, not misbehaviour itself. In practice, this translates into placating pupils and never really pushing them to achieve. Exhaustive efforts are made in schools to introduce new "behaviour management solutions". Fast-paced lessons; interventions; CCTV surveillance; behaviour tracking; child therapists; more assessment; less assessment; motivational training; bribes; even bouncers: a constant merry-go-round of "cutting edge" methods trying in vain to compensate for the abdication of authority in schools.

The paradox which afflicts schools such as mine is that when teachers are relaxed on discipline, discipline becomes their overriding concern. In strict schools where rules are consistently enforced, pupils know the expectations for their behaviour and teachers can focus on teaching. In schools where discipline is relaxed, ensuring good behaviour becomes an all-consuming battle. In my car journey home with two other teachers, behaviour dominates our discussions. We rarely get round to sharing stories of actually teaching as we are so preoccupied with getting the pupils to sit down, stop talking, open their books, and pick up a pen. I can only dream about what I could achieve with my pupils if we were in a school where good behaviour was the norm, not the exception. Thankfully, it seems that a corner is being turned. The government is keen to address not just the structure but the culture of state schooling. In 2007, David Cameron attacked the educational orthodoxies which were a "hangover from the 1960s" and said discipline was a key ingredient for successful schools. The proposed reforms to the Ofsted inspection process are going to reflect this, with a quarter of school inspections being dedicated to school ethos and behaviour. 

However, the most encouraging developments are happening on the ground. By now, the achievements of the new head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw are legendary. He took over one of the worst schools in the country, Hackney Downs Comprehensive (renamed Mossbourne Academy), and imposed a  regime of homework, uniform codes, regulation haircuts and silence in the corridors. The result? An astonishing 84 per cent of pupils now get five good GCSEs including English and maths. Seven of his pupils went to Cambridge University this year, including one who became a single mother at 14. Similarly, a string of academies run by the educational charity ARK are achieving mind-boggling results, with firm discipline a key ingredient of their success. ARK also plays a part in Future Leaders, a headship training programme which is beginning to roll out a new generation of heads, dedicated not to progressive fantasies but pragmatic solutions. Observing these developments from the frontline, I feel genuinely buoyed. 

During the 1960s, there was no end to the promises made by progressive educators: harmonious schools, emotionally fulfilled pupils, class mobility, inquisitive and free-thinking students. Their ideas have successfully embedded themselves in the state sector, but failed disastrously in delivering on these promises. Instead we have been left with the bitter reality of failing schools where appalling behaviour is shrugged away as unremarkable. 

In 2000, the PISA index of student attainment was developed to make international comparisons in science, literacy and maths. Britain's slide down the rankings has been precipitous: we are now ranked 25th for reading and 28th for maths worldwide (compared with seventh and eighth respectively in 2000). In Britain, one in five pupils leaves school functionally illiterate, an unforgivable statistic for a country of our wealth and resources.

The Left's dedication to education cannot be faulted, but the influence of its ideas on the culture of education has been a disaster. Every day I see my school failing to educate its pupils, and I despair at how we teachers must stagger under the burden of bad ideas. It is time to abandon the damaging notions which have dominated educational thinking for the last half-century. In their place, we should welcome the return of discipline. In my history classroom in an inner-city comprehensive, I will be doing my bit to turn the tide.

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Michael Newman
March 15th, 2016
12:03 AM
This article is typical of those who are anti-progressive it shows a distinct and deliberate lack of knowledge of the history of schooling. The H.A.L. Fisher Continuation Act of 1918 was part of a movement based on liberating the child from the teacher. Members of this community included Arthur Brock (therapist to Wilfred Owen), H.A.L. Fisher (Cabinet Member for Education), Lord Lytton, Baden Powell, Clara Grant, the American Ambassador, Lillian de Lissa... practising teachers and headteachers from state primary schools, and numerous independent secondary schools... as well as artists, musicians, physcologists... they defined what we see as good in our primary schools - child centred learning, creativity, play, long life learning, children taking responsibility for their learning and their behaviour... This is A.S.Neill's legacy along with the rest of the New Ideals in Education community.

Philip Arlington
July 25th, 2012
12:07 PM
It depresses me that despite all your criticisms of our awful schools (I am that rare creature who attended one and got into Oxford) you repeat the mantra about "Good GCSEs". Except for a pupil of very low intelligence a grade C at GCSE is a miserably low aspiration. By accepting this mantra you are complicit in grade inflation and the culture of low expectations. If a C is the definition of "good", regardless of the level of achievement necessary to attain it, then all that is necessary to demonstrate that the school system is working is a steady reduction in that level. Grade inflation has been undermining education for a quarter of a century, including in private schools.

Barry from Victoria
May 26th, 2012
5:05 AM
I almost became a teacher in the '60's and remember reading Summerhill. It was an alluring idea, and maybe it would work if the students have respect for their teachers. But I have come to believe that children crave order, and when they misbehave it is actually a cry for help. When they aren't corrected, they interpret it to mean that they are not loved. At least that's my folk psychology theory on the subject of discipline.

Joseph Alan Jones
April 23rd, 2012
1:04 PM
I am yet another ex-teacher who left on health grounds as an alternative to being disciplined for slapping an unruly lout who threatened me. I knew lovely female teacher who also left on health grounds. I shall take care to live long and very happy to make the most of my pension. Just think how much it is costing the nation for being stupid and failing to tackle this school discipline problem. I could, but have no intention of offering a solution to the schooling problem. It is not that difficult. One day someone will wake up! A hint:- You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink!

April 15th, 2012
9:04 PM
Burkard, you seem to be assuming that I believe my 4 examples are incapable of behaving well. On the contrary, they are all able to behave and learn positively in a well managed classroom. My point was that they all require a different approach because each is a unique individual with differing motivations for the choices they make. I know from personal experience that a "one size fits all" approach to behaviour is not effective. What works well with an autistic child may not be effective with an impulsive child. Your comment that I do not respect parents is presumably also based on the examples I've given. I don't accept your conclusion as I fully recognise the vital contribution that parents make when they do back schools to the hilt - I experience this with the vast majority (95%+) of the parents in my school which has almost 700 children. Home circumstances do have a huge impact on children's conduct and learning and I can say with confidence that for almost all families this contribution is highly positive, regardless of the vast differences in parenting style within this population. Children do best when home and school work closely together and this requires mutual respect and open channels of communication.

sd goh
March 19th, 2012
2:03 PM
In the past, missionary schools in Malaysia, mainly of the Catholic denomination, were renowned for their discipline and went on to produce many high-achieving students who have attained prominent positions, both in the public and private domains here. They instilled in their students respect for the elders, taught them responsibility, civic consciousness, selflessness and dedication in the performance of their duties. During their time it was an unheard of thing for a teacher to be threatened, or worse, assaulted by a parent, let alone a pupil. Those who were products of these schools never regretted having gone there.

March 7th, 2012
1:03 PM
I fear that Jim's attitude to behaviour is the problem. He takes it for granted that some pupils can't behave, and he largely blames home circumstances. Yet if parents are treated with any kind of respect--something that Jim clearly finds difficult--they will almost always back teachers to the hilt. The cult of 'special needs' is pernicious in that it conditions well-meaning teachers into believing that all manner of problems prevent children from behaving and learning, and that home circumstances is the all-purpose let-out for failure. I'm sorry, Jim, I've just seen too many schools where all pupils are perfectly behaved, despite horrendous social stats. Their teachers don't wring their hands about all the factors which you associate with 'professional' behaviour management. They do have heads and senior management that back them to the hilt. And, perhaps most importantly, they use a very healthy dose of direct instruction, and they group pupils by ability so that no child is out of the loop. When kids are actually learning, they seldom misbehave.

March 6th, 2012
4:03 PM
Ten years teaching in state comprehensives nearly drove me to an early grave. Some of the reasons: # school management (including headteachers) more interested in the greasy pole and their pensions than doing the job (most of them could not manage a toffee shop); # the system blaming teachers for its failure rather than recognising societal problems; # OFSTED - half way through my teaching experience they changed the goal posts and over- night I became a satisfactory teacher instead of a good one; # the teaching unions who were supine in their responses to state mismanagement; # union bosses who preferred public posturing to getting stuck in (especially my union - ATL); # the zeitgeist which pretended that pupils could do no wrong, and there is no such thing as failure (ie. only "lack of success"); # politicians who manage the state sector but send their brats to private sector schools; # etc. As far as pupils are concerned, authority now resides in the peer group, celebrities, drug dealers, sports stars, PC games consoles and the fairies in their drug induced dreams. Parents? they do not count because they grew up in the same wonderland. Work? why? there is no fun in that. In a society where a banker is villified for getting a million pounds bonus for doing a good job but an ex- England football manager earns 6 milliom per annum and gets a multi million pounds pay off for doing a lousy job what do you expect. Get used to it, because it is not going to change any time soon

March 3rd, 2012
10:03 AM
On my first day at a "cutting-edge" (soi-disant) Teacher-training college (read Greenwich) (after 30 years of teaching I required re-training!) I was informed that the "purpose of Education is...ta change behaviour!" "From what to what?" I asked, tendentiously. "Please leave the course if you intend to be disruptive!" I was advised... So I took their advice, left the course, left classroom teaching (online is far more satisfying!) and have never once regretted it!

March 3rd, 2012
9:03 AM
I agree with the importance of good discipline in establishing a learning ethos in the classroom. I am yet to be convinced that the nationwide malaise implied in this article is actually the reality. I am a Deputy Head in an inner city primary school and in visiting other schools, and within my own school, the usual experience is one of a calm and ordered environment where children are eager to learn and eager for reassurance from their teacher. There are undoubtedly schools and classrooms where this is not the case, but to suggest the solution is as simple as putting the pupils in blazers with regulation haircuts and insisting on silence in the corridors is naive at best. Schools and classrooms where discipline is best established have staff who work hard to consistently enforce the agreed rules (which may well have been set through discussion with the pupils) in a fair way, and clearly communicate about behaviour with their pupils. This is hugely challenging and requires a great degree of professional judgement, patience and emotional resilience on the part of the teacher over a sustained period of time. This is not something that is easily taught as part of initial teacher training (although the lack of focus on behaviours management in ITT is concerning), and not something to be underestimated. We no longer live in a culture and climate where authority figures are always automatically granted respect and so school staff need to create a microcosm of such a culture within their school. Yes, this does require support of leaders within the school and yes, silence in the corridors helps form such a culture, but I would be interested to see whether Mr Hunter can establish good order in his class through force of will alone or whether he will need a little more intuition and understanding about why his pupils are not always respecting his rules. I do wonder also how a teacher who is openly dismissive about the importance of thinking about the reasons behind misbehaviour will manage in a school system where he may have to teach 4 pupils who are all interrupting his lesson - one an autistic girl who cannot make sense of the social norms of the classroom, one an angry boy witnessing mum regularly beaten by her partner at home, an arrogant and dislikeable boy with parents who have never set him any boundaries, and an overactive girl who is used to mum managing her with dictatorial authoritarianism every minute at home and with no idea how to self-regulate. Tell them all to get a haircut and be quiet?

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