A word in your ear: Sharing dismay

It’s been ringing in my ear recently.  Like a tune stuck in one’s head, endlessly repeating itself. ‘Disciplinary society’, those are the words, that’s the discordant, repeating, tune.

And the flipside of discipline, is punishment; or, in the more mealy-mouth words of official-speak, the flipside of discipline is ‘sanction’. In practical terms this is a distinction without a difference as anyone who has been sanctioned is likely to tell you. If it looks like a punishment, if it feels like a punishment, then it’s punishment.

And as a society we seem to be getting better and better at creating occasions to threaten and impose punishment or sanction.

Why do I mention this now? It’s simply that over the past couple of weeks or so a few seemingly disparate experiences crossed my path, and, not for the first time, I realised I was seeing a pattern, a system in fact, and not a series of random coincidences. I’d noticed it before and I’m pretty sure that you have to. No claim to novelty here, this is about sharing dismay.

The immediate coincidences were three: visits to schools, sorry, academies; the second, a letter to Government from some hundreds of counsellors, psychologists and mental health people; third, an incident involving an adventure playground and a school, sorry, academy, that whilst deadly serious in its implications, has the features of sheer farce.

I’ve visited some schools, sorry, academies (I’ll stop this now) recently. I found the experience unnerving. It reminded me that the way we go about education – this is obvious really – says a lot about the society we have, or wish for. Thus the academy as symbol.

I could talk about the rigidities of the educational testing regime, but I will not. Rather, I’ll draw your attention to the architectural style of so many of these new educational behemoths – one of the ones I visited had 1,500 pupils. That style suggests nothing so much as the headquarters of a large commercial corporation. The whole place speaks corporatism – high ceilings, lots of glass and an atmosphere of relentless purposefulness. The mission is to turn out strivers and achievers – no shirkers here.


And then there’s that glass, which I read not as a metaphor for transparency, but as metaphor for, and means of, surveillance. Couple this to the inevitable perimeter fencing or brick wall, the locked gates, the electronic entry system, the signing-in system and related visitor identity tags – even a not-so-jaundiced eye can’t help but be reminded of Bentham’s prison panoptican, transferred here to an educational institution. ‘Surveillance’ and ‘control’ are the watchwords and leitmotif of our education system, not only affecting pupils, but the school or academy itself which is monitored via the architecture of testing and league table.

school2Surveillance, control and discipline that is what the these buildings and associated accoutrements put in mind. A school is nothing if not a disciplinary regime, as Government is eager to emphasise in its thoroughly depressing little document ‘Behaviour and Discipline in Schools‘:

The school behaviour policy

What the law says

Maintained schools

1. The headteacher must set out measures in the behaviour policy which aim to:

• promote good behaviour, self discipline and respect;

• prevent bullying;

• ensure that pupils complete assigned work;

and which

• regulate the conduct of pupils.’

Now what I say next is not on the basis of thoroughgoing research, but a quick trawl through a number of (translated) Swedish National Agency for Education documents found no trace of the word discipline. It may be there somewhere, but I could not find it. Absent. Not even departed since I’m not convinced it ever arrived.

I asked a Swedish teacher colleague to look at the DoE’s discipline document. He stopped reading it once he ‘had got the message’ for fear of launching himself into a depression were he to continue.

Does Sweden have anything similar? So far as he is aware, Sweden does not. It does, however, have its ‘Curriculum for the compulsory school, preschool class and the recreation centre, 2011‘. Its focus lies elsewhere:

‘Fundamental values

The national school system is based on democratic foundations. The Education Act (2010:800) stipulates that education in the school system aims at pupils acquiring and developing knowledge and values. It should promote the develop¬ment and learning of all pupils, and a lifelong desire to learn. Education should impart and establish respect for human rights and the fundamental democratic values on which Swedish society is based. Each and everyone working in the school should also encourage respect for the intrinsic value of each person and the environment we all share.

The inviolability of human life, individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people, equality between women and men, and solidarity with the weak and vulnerable are the values that the school should represent and im¬part. In accordance with the ethics borne by Christian tradition and Western humanism, this is achieved by fostering in the individual a sense of justice, generosity of spirit, tolerance and responsibility. Teaching in the school should be non-denominational.’

Dangerous stuff this, clearly: ‘democratic’, ‘respect for human rights’, ‘fundamental democratic values’, ‘intrinsic value of each person’. Goodness me, ‘intrinsic value’, a concept we avoid or blush to mention as I’ve remarked more than once before.

Securing boundaries

Disciplinary regimes such as our education system, by their very nature, cannot admit of challenge, their boundaries must remain intact. Control of time and movement is fundamental to their modus operandi. But more than that, they need to exert some control over their immediate environment to counter potential challenge or dilution of their status and – think corporate headquarters – to maintain the integrity of their brand, their public image. The school system is, after all, now in competition with itself, with each school/academy vying for customer/pupils. In such circumstances the uniform becomes a matter of searing concern, its use strictly regulated, particularly perhaps when its carrier has been released into the shared public realm where the rigidities of academy or school discipline should hold no sway.

‘Should hold no sway…’.

The Department of Education, ever ready to be helpful in matters of discipline, has conferred powers on schools/academies allowing them to semi-colonise the public realm. This from their 2014 guidance previously mentioned ‘Behaviour and discipline in schools’:

‘The headteacher must have regard to any guidance or notification provided by the governing body which may include the following:

• screening and searching pupils;

• the power to use reasonable force and other physical contact;

the power to discipline beyond the school gate…


Teachers can also discipline pupils in certain circumstances when a pupil’s misbehaviour occurs outside of school.


Teachers have the power to discipline pupils for misbehaving outside of the school premises “to such an extent as is reasonable” (all bold my emphasis)

So, what might this mean in practice?

My visits to the academies happened to coincide with an adventure playground asking me what did I think might be an appropriate response to local academy staff pursuing their pupils into the playground demanding that they go home and take their uniforms off, this because a self-generated academy rule required pupils to be out of uniform within 20 minutes of leaving the academy’s premises.

The kids were of course hounded in the street as well but the issue for the playground (no, I will not tell you which one) was school staff entering it without invitation or permission, in effect, attempting to extend the writ of the school into the autonomous institution that is the adventure playground. Once turfed out – and this is barely believable – the academy staff took to looking through the fence to record the identities of their apparently sartorially errant pupils. Absurd, I know, but worrying too. Something has come unhinged.

My response was detailed and my hope is you can imagine what it was. I will say it was coupled with a suggestion to speak to Liberty, which at least gives you a flavour. (By way of an aside, the uniforms are hideous. Quite why a child would want to be wearing it a moment longer than necessary is a mystery.)

It does not seem fanciful to notice that this disciplinary impulse is well-tuned to induct pupils and students into the requirements of a labour market where the balance of power is weighted in employers’ favour with limited protections for employees, where zero hour and short-term contracts are prevalent, union or employee representation is zero, active and close monitoring and surveillance is rife, and the pay is lousy. Come on, there is some sort of connection here.

No boundary

My academy visit and the adventure playground issue coincided with a letter from hundreds of counsellors, psychologists and mental health experts to Government objecting to what they described as an ‘intimidatory disciplinary regime’ facing benefit claimants who would be captured – that probably is the right word for it – by the 2015 Budget proposal to provide on-line cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to claimants and people on the Fit for Work programme.

Now, it does not much matter, for the purposes of this piece, whether or not CBT is effective, or what its strengths and weaknesses might be (though as you can imagine the letter writers do have views about this) for what we have is the coercive intrusion of the state into the private lives of citizens, directing not only that a particular class of person will have therapy (or, presumably, be sanctioned) but which one they will have.

But this is all of a piece, and one does not need to look far to find other manifestations of, well, picking off people one by one, or seeming to address a real problem by crudely monetarising it, and, as with the therapy initiative, distorting the ethical basis of relationships.

Two further examples to help underscore the point: the NHS ‘incentivising’ GPs to diagnose dementia at £55.00 a pop (a scheme now to end after howls of protest); school/academies power to fine parents for taking their children out of school/academy in term time.

It should surely strike us as queer that the resolute advocates of a small state should so enthusiastically extend state power into the intricate and intimate matters of our personal lives. These intrusions form part of a technology of discipline; a discipline that travels hand in hand with its close cousin – ethically distorted incentives.

6 responses to “A word in your ear: Sharing dismay

  1. “The school system is, after all, now in competition with itself, with each school/academy vying for customer/pupils.”

    Which is why it will, quite soon eat itself, but only after eating its pupils, and regurgitating them. Actually, it is doing that now…

    Yes I’m also disgusted, in case you hadn’t picked that up.

    Did those AP staff retaliate by filming the school staff filming their AP? How do you/they know they were school staff? They might have been peedos. Call the police next time to report them?


    • As I understand it, the ap staff were pretty robust with the staff who tresspassed. And certainly the ‘how do we know you’re not paedos?’ came up. Against my own judgment (and sort of advice), they were less robust with the school in their meeting with the Headteacher/Principle. Nevetheless, I understand that the academy no longer invades the ap, though academy staff still hound kids in the streets (or so I understand it).


      • The AP staff may have felt that the need to maintain good relations with the other agencies in the ‘team around the child’ outweighed the need to remonstrate pointlessly if not counter productively about the vexatious and idiotic teachers.


  2. I’ll hold your hair back, Anita. direct it into this jiffy bag and I’ll pay for the postage, the envelope is addressed to the Ministry of Love of whatever Goveist name it now has.


  3. Anita, stay with ‘dismayed’, avoid regurgitation.


  4. Bernard, I am indeed dismayed. Also want to puke.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.