This is particularly interesting to us here at St. Helen’s College at the moment as we are in the process of reviewing our behaviour rewards and sanctions system for Upper School. As we do so, we are very mindful that we need the full support of parents for any such system to work effectively. Parents and school staff together must model and praise good behaviour, and remind children where behaviour is not acceptable. Consistency is key; a child must not get ‘mixed messages’ from school and home; we know, therefore, that school must communicate expectations and systems clearly to parents in order that the home-school partnership can operate effectively in this area.
In setting and communicating such expectations and systems, we must tread a delicate but purposeful path; we cannot take too ‘soft’ or too ‘hard’ a line. Schools are busy communities of learning and enrichment and, in order for children to learn effectively, a positive and harmonious environment must be maintained. The most common reason cited for expulsion or exclusion from schools in general is ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’ and this is no surprise. If a minimum standard of behaviour is not maintained in a classroom and around a school in general, then effective learning and child development cannot take place. Working consistently towards a high standard of behaviour is crucial in any school environment and particularly so in an independent school, where paying customers (you, the parents!) have a right to expect that children’s learning will not be negatively affected by the poor behaviour of other pupils. It is also paramount that schools protect the wellbeing of their staff; teachers and support staff cannot operate to the best of their ability and provide excellent teaching and learning opportunities if their positivity and enthusiasm are worn away by disruptive behaviour.
The Telegraph article made much of the erosion of teachers’ authority over the years by parents who may have questioned the work of schools, criticised teachers and encouraged children not to ‘play by the rules’. It stated, quite rightly, that children need order and structure in their lives, and that schools work to provide this by instilling self-discipline through encouragement and example and by giving pupils clear guidelines as to how to conduct themselves. It pointed out that, despite this, sometimes pupils need to be called to account, to realise that they are part of a community whose attendance at school is to learn and that they have no right to deprive others of an education.
All of this is true. Yet, over the last two decades, it has fallen out of fashion for schools to ‘discipline’ children. With its undertone of ‘punishment’, even the word ‘discipline’ can evoke fear and dread. We have considered this carefully recently, in consultation with staff, pupils and parents, and it is no surprise that our community is in agreement on this point. At St. Helen’s College, a community based on love and family, we do not like the idea of ‘punishment’ and nor do we wish to create a culture of fear, or dread of sanctions, amongst our wonderful and cherished children. How, then, do we maintain the highest standards of behaviour without hanging the ‘threat’ of chastisement over our pupils’ heads?
The answer, as so often, seems to lie in the history of our language. It is true that the word ‘discipline’ has negative connotations nowadays. In fact, though, the word comes from ‘discipulus’, the Latin word for pupil, which also provides the source of the word disciple. Discipline was not historically, and nor should it be, a negative thing. As the root word suggests, it should be the voluntary following of a good example and the reminder that virtue is its own reward. Discipline should be choosing to reflect on and improve one’s own behaviour in the hope of living a good, productive life of service to oneself and others.
We are therefore going to base our new behaviour system on providing chances for pupils to reflect upon and improve sub-standard behaviour. Thankfully, sub-standard behaviour is rare here; but, if children’s words or actions do ever fall below the standard of behaviour we expect, encourage and rely upon from our pupils, we will ask them to spend time thinking about what they have said or done, and coming to their own conclusions about how to improve their behaviour in future. Sometimes, particularly at the start, we may need to guide pupils a little through this process. Such guidance will be provided with love and with the idea firmly in mind that children must be encouraged and reminded to be ‘disciples’ of good, not reprimanded or punished for wrongdoing. Expectations will be high, as they always have been at St. Helen’s College, of staff, children and parents and we trust that parents will work with the school to set high standards and to reinforce these expectations in the children. We are lucky to have a hugely supportive and like-minded parent body and we are proud to be able to work with you to ensure that your children’s values are secure and that their behaviour is exemplary.
After all, as the Telegraph concluded, ‘education is not about ‘them’ and ‘us’ or cheap point-scoring. It is about improving the future life chances of all our children'.