Discipline is life-changing

Discipline is vital in schools. I have seen it change the life chances of children denied it for years before they arrive at our school. Talk to those who joined the army, and they will also tell you that military discipline changes lives. Ask J.D. Vance, for instance. Vance grew up in a part of America rife with poverty, unpredictability, divorce, violence, abuse, drug addiction and obesity, surrounded by a blame and excuses culture. From 9 months old he was given Pepsi to drink. Aged a (self-described) ‘pudgy’ 18 he joined the US marines. ‘They’ll teach you discipline,’ he was told. It was ‘a life-defining challenge’: ‘Life had taught me I had no control: psychologists call it learned helplessness,’ he writes. ‘Every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Every interaction was a revelation. I had never felt empowered with such responsibility. I had underestimated myself. I’d never see things the same way again; I’d changed my whole perspective. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willpower.’ Vance, the first in his family to go to University, graduated from Yale Law School and is now happily married with a fulfilling career.

There are three main reasons why discipline is so important in schools. It prevents bullying; it improves learning; and it empowers children.


Discipline prevents bullying

Bullying is a huge problem in English schools. The Annual Bullying Survey has the following statistics from 2015:

  • 43% of young people see bullying at least once a week.
  • 43% of young people have been bullied.
  • 50% of young people have bullied another person.

The National Centre for Social Research estimated in 2010 that around 77,000 young people aged 11-15 are absent from state school, where bullying is a reason given for absence. There are thousands of young people who are frightened to attend school every day because of bullying. Bullying damages children’s lives, and the damage often lasts.

In schools where teachers lack authority around school or control in the classroom, bullying metastasises. The statistics on bullying are shocking, but this first-hand account of a school visit reminds us of the emotional impact bullying has:

‘Noise in the classroom escalates, and fights break out. Martin, a chubby boy, is often bullied: he is teased for being fat. Aggressive onslaught is continuously waged against him. Martin constantly attempts to defend himself against the humiliation as others taunt him. He begins to cry. The sight of Martin’s tears sends the boys into a frenzied, victorious uproar. The classroom meanwhile is descending into full-scale chaos, punctuated by vain attempts at behaviour management. Ade, feeding on the heightened tension, rants: ‘Martin’s a f***ing b**ch, man. Martin’s a f***ing b**ch, man.’ On and on he repeats his chant. All is chaos and the lesson ends. Outside in break, the disruption spills into playtime in an escalating cycle. Next lesson, there is groupwork. The children talk about who their worst enemy is and they all agree it is Martin. One says, ‘Martin needs to get beat up today.’ They talk about how Martin ought to be stabbed. One shouts across to him, ‘Watch out! After school I’m going to break your nose,’ then tells the others: ‘I’m gonna beat him, bash him after school.’ Others reply enthusiastically, ‘no, no, do it in PE.’ Another shouts, ‘Martin, you got no friends at school.’ Another shouts, ‘what are you looking at you little fat pig, you look like your mum!’ ‘He’s probably so fat he can’t get in the car!’ Oi! Fatboy slim!‘ Later that day, Martin is crying out of sight in the sheds. ‘I am sick of these boys picking on me and they keep picking on me and I don’t know why.’ He says he just wants to go home. It is rarely a safe place for him to be.

Discipline in schools can help prevent bullying from ruining lives. In schools where classrooms are orderly, where breaks and corridors are calm, where teachers are firmly in control, and where there is a culture of discipline rather than disruption, staff can be much more effective in preventing, responding to and reducing bullying. When we ask Michaela pupils whether they see any bullying (we ask this all the time), they all say no. I press them: ‘what, none?’ ‘None.’ ‘What about unkindness?’ ‘If there is any, we tell a teacher, and that stops it straight away.’ We keep asking this, and keep teaching pupils to let us know as soon as they see any unkindness whatsoever. We deal with it swiftly to prevent it escalating. All Michaela teachers continually remind pupils that it’s everyone’s responsibility to prevent bullying. Ask them when you visit, and our pupils will tell you they feel very safe and very happy. There’s no complacency though – social media and outside influences mean that all schools have an uphill struggle on tackling bullying. Discipline can contribute to minimising bullying, which all schools want to achieve.


Discipline improves learning

Discipline eliminates disruption from the classroom. In schools that some fifty of my colleagues and friends across England have taught in, low-level disruption is prevalent, damaging pupils’ learning and teachers’ instruction. Read Frank Chalk’s book on the chaos, disorder and abuse resulting from an absence of discipline. Read this NQT’s account of how draining it is to deal with unrelenting low-level disruption in lessons. Read Francis Gilbert’s account of being jeered at, abused and humiliated as an NQT. Read Charlie Caroll’s account of life as a supply teacher across England, with fights, bullying and threats. Read Katharine Birbalsingh’s account of teaching in a school rated good by OFSTED, where bullying and fights were prevalent, and where pupils tell her: ‘the others are so loud and create so much havoc that I can’t learn’; they plead: ‘make them stop talking, Miss, stop them interrupting, make them listen to the teacher.’ OFSTED estimates that on average in England, 38 days of learning every year are lost to low-level disruption. In just one year, over 8,000 children were temporarily excluded for assaulting teachers in England. Would we be happy for our own children to learn in such disruption?


What if, instead, every lesson was calm and focused? At Michaela, as every visitor testifies, every minute is maximally focused on subject learning. There is no low-level disruption in lessons. Pupils can concentrate, listen and learn. There are no distractions of chat, gossip, crisps, sweets, drinks, notes, phones, insults, surreptitious bullying or fights in lessons. All pupils have the chance to learn in peace, quiet, order and tranquility. As a result, all pupils feel safer and happier, especially quieter pupils who were bullied at primary school, but even those pupils who bullied others before: they feel better about themselves because they shed selfishness and learn the habit and discipline of empathy. Every pupil can learn, because every teacher can teach. Even brand new and unqualified teachers who have never taught before are able to teach without being overcome by disruption, disrespect or defiance. When deference is the norm, even aggressively overconfident students who arrive boasting they “ruled their last school” learn to respect adults and defer to their professional judgement and decisions, first time, every time. The first-rate education that can take place in such a calm atmosphere is exciting, both for teachers and pupils.


Discipline empowers children

 At Michaela, every day, we see no-excuses discipline empower pupils with responsibility in their lives. When a child makes an excuse or blames someone else as the reason why they were distracted, they disempower themselves. They make themselves helpless and put improvement out of their control. We tell them – to acknowledge a mistake, to be tough on yourself, to learn the right lesson is not easy – but it is the most empowering choice for the future. To ask the simple question: ‘what could you do differently next time?’ is much more likely to improve a child’s life and future prospects than to indulge excuses, blame or irresponsibility. How is it kind or caring to deny a child in school the high standards and candid feedback that I would want for my own child? In the short-term, it may feel harsh to hold our pupils to the highest standards, but it demonstrates real belief in them. At Michaela, we are clear, direct and tough with them: ‘You can do better. You can hold yourself to higher standards. I have faith in you. I want you to achieve and succeed. I want everyone to trust you, everyone to respect, everyone to admire you in your life. You can make better choices.’ No excuses discipline can be deeply affirming. Pupils respond to it. They raise their game. They improve fast. They grow in self-belief. Instead of asking, “why me? how is that fair?” they internalise the question: ‘What can I do differently next time?’ All teachers reinforce this question all the time, whenever any pupil makes an unwise choice. Pupils become more and more responsible, happy and proud.

As a result of our culture of no excuses discipline and responsibility, pupils have changed their life trajectories. We have pupils who arrived from PRUs, who have been permanently excluded from several schools, who brought in weapons to previous schools, who ‘ruled the last school’ through aggressive intimidation. They are now thriving. They are focused in lessons, learning loads, feeling successful, and being kinder at home to their siblings and families. They are no longer aggressive, angry, disrespectful, fragile or egotistical. They are happy. They are on the path to success. No excuses discipline has propelled them to change scowling, sneering or snarling body language into polite, respectful and considerate interactions. No excuses discipline is, in our experience at Michaela, nothing short of life-changing.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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3 Responses to Discipline is life-changing

  1. Taylor says:

    Thank you for such a well thought out post. I teach my pupils daily that self-discipline is a key difference between success and failure.

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