Authority in Schools


One of the best questions from the Michaela Battle Hymn event was: ‘how would you draw the distinction between authority and authoritarian?’

It is a vital distinction, and one that must be disentangled rather than conflated.


My definition of an authoritarian state is one that maintains power by using violence to repress dissent. This definition can be tested by asking: do any authoritarian states refrain from using violence to repress dissent?

One major hallmark of authoritarian regimes, then, is using violence to suppress opponents. Examples of authoritarian regimes are Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Cuba under Castro, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Chile under Pinochet, Libya under Gaddafi, Uganda under Amin, South Africa under apartheid. What these regimes have in common is ruling through violent repression.


In Russia, 21 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power in 2000. In Libya, regime opponents of Gaddafi were hanged in purges and at least 25 assassinations between 1980 and 1987 alone. In Chile, Pinochet’s regime tortured thousands of prisoners and left over 3,000 dead or missing, forcing 200,000 into exile. In Cuba, estimates of Castro’s victims of repression range from 10,000 people murdered in firing squad executions and extrajudicial killings. In South Africa, 40,000 politically offending Africans were whipped every year, and hundreds were executed for treason; between 1960 and 1994, the South African government were responsible for 2,700 assassinations by secret security forces. In Zimbabwe, under Mugabe’s authoritarian regime from 1980 to the present, tens of thousands of political opponents: in one attack alone, 20,000 opponents were killed. In Uganda, between 1970 and 1979, Idi Amin is estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 500,000 opponents. In Cambodia, over 2 million people were executed in mass shootings and buried in mass graves. With millions murdered at the hands of these regimes, a revulsion towards authoritarianism is understandable.


What is an authoritarian approach to schooling? If violence is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, one major hallmark of an authoritarian school might be using corporal punishment. In England, this is banned in state schools, since 1986. It remains common worldwide, in Africa and Asia, although many developed countries have banned it.

One behaviour consultant asked if we would use corporal punishment at Michaela if it were legal. Let me categorically state: we would never use corporal punishment at Michaela, even if it were legal.

To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes.

By contrast, Michaela is a school of teachers educating children without any violence, torture or terror whatsoever, but rather with great love, passion and enthusiasm. We believe in adult authority, not in authoritarian repression.


There is a prodigious danger in conflating authority and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is brutally repressive; authority in schools is vitally necessary. If we undermine teachers’ and headteachers’ authority by tangling it up as authoritarian, if we shame school leaders for imposing authority and enforcing school rules, if we as a country are averse to authoritative schools, we put authority in crisis, and we undermine our own children’s education.

Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay ‘The Crisis in Education’ was prophetic. Although Arendt was an escapee of the National Socialist authoritarian, totalitarian, genocidal regime in Germany and the Holocaust in Europe, she argued against a ‘radical distrust of authority’:

‘by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority … handed over to the tyranny of the group.’

‘Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.’

‘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.’

‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’

The consequences of attacking strict, authoritative school leadership as authoritarian have been disastrous. School leaders all over England feel uneasy about imposing too much authority, for fear of being denounced as fascist. As a result, new teachers and supply teachers are being sworn at and abused by unruly pupils all over England; bullying is rife; and low-level disruption is prevalent, as hundreds of teachers as well as the schools inspectorate attest. Thousands of children’s lives have been damaged as a result of vilifying authority.


It is time to throw off the shackles of guilt about adult authority. To establish clear adult, expert and professional authority and orderly discipline is a moral duty of school leaders. Benevolent authority reduces disruption, bullying and abuse. We owe it to all the children we teach in this country.



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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8 Responses to Authority in Schools

  1. Brian says:

    “The consequences of attacking strict, authoritative school leadership as authoritarian have been disastrous. School leaders all over England feel uneasy about imposing too much authority, for fear of being denounced as fascist. ”

    The idea that the breakdown of authority which can be seen across western societies (and which has never even existed in many others) is the result of school leaders not wanting to appear facist is an interesting one for me.

    I think maybe Arendt saw schools as a way to maintain a strict authority in society, and authority which was quite rightly being lost.

    My favourite quote from the essay is this one…..

    “is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us”

    ….where she talks about “shift happens” and the dangers of preventing children, by way of education, from taking advantage of opportunities unimagined by us educators.

    Schools are a reflection of changes in society rather than means of conrolling them.

    This stuff is also 60 years old and the world has moved on (and continues to do so).

  2. suecowley says:

    Joe, if you’re referring to me, I asked the question about corporal punishment in response to a blog you wrote praising countries in which corporal punishment is still part of the education system. I was posing the question to try and get you to consider the potential flaws in the analogy you were making. I don’t think anyone would ever assume you would use corporal punishment at your school, since it is illegal. However, the use of the cane is still within living memory for many of us. Its recent prohibition is useful to remember in the light of changes in attitudes to behaviour over the last few decades.

  3. Wouldn’t an equally good definition of an authoritarian state be ‘maintains power by repressing dissent’? That too would pass your tautological test.

  4. It appears that we are back to the question of the role of the adult in education (and the wider one of the role of the State in Society). Children are the future, and should be nurtured and cared for. Adults in education have a responsibility to discharge with respect to the children in their care. Most involved in this current debate would not demure from these positions, I think. This is part of civilisation. The issue really isn’t inhumanity towards the students; but rather what are the acceptable ways available for adults in education to discharge their responsibility.

    Both sides of this debate think that they are right, and that there is good evidence that the views of the other lead to negative outcomes. It is also clear that sub-optimal behaviour on both sides can lead to very negative outcomes. But, neither side (generally) hates children, nor takes their responsibility less than seriously. This is a debate (at the heart) about approach and methodology, but it often appears that this has been forgotten.

    At this point in time, Michaela is conducting an experiment. It has devised a system that aims to deliver excellent life outcomes for its students. It’s methodology is unsual. It isn’t the only school conducting an experiment in methodology (on both sides of this debate), but has, arguably, publicised more. The jury is still out; but Michaela is almost certainly not dehumanising its students.

    Incidentally, I agree with Joe that adult authority exists and must be exercised – but, with respect: Respect: The Oil of Civilisation via @chemistrypoet

  5. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

  6. Joe, in the Netherlands and in Scandinavia, there is a concept of “consensual authoritarianism” – it is where we talk about the standards and expectations we have of each other, including the way we speak to each other and the actions we can take to ensure that a deeply respectful community is preserved and deepened. It is what stops Dutch people mowing the lawn on Sundays, for instance – a collective peer pressure that lies at the heart of a true, responsibility-taking community, that says that “here, we have learned what works for the common good and we give each other permission to hold one another to account for that.” It means that authority is held in common, and I think that in school communities that have articulated that, we end up with an authority amongst teachers that derives principally from them having earned it in the way they speak to and treat students, and model it with one another.

  7. Dear Joe,

    I read this post ages ago and it keeps bothering me – so here are two thoughts. I’m not sure violence is the hallmark of authoritarianism – I think it’s an unwillingness to accept dissent. States have always had violence as part of their power and this is irrespective of whether the state is democratic or authoritarian or communist or …whatever. Armies are vehicles of violence – but schools have stopped using violence as part of their power.

    So I kinda wish you’d responded to the behaviour consultant by explaining that violence is as equally connected to democratic societies as it is to authoritarian societies. There may be additional codes that prevent violence being used against civilian populations – but violence itself is still a part of society’s power. The behaviour consultant should be asked if they would use corporal punishment themselves!

    But even those issues are mere sidebars – just one-upmanship! The key point I wanted to raise is: what’s wrong with being authoritarian? What’s wrong with not tolerating dissent? I genuinely want to know what you and your team think. Here’s my thoughts:
    a) Children’s thoughts are viewed as being equal to their teachers’ – that’s why children are encouraged to interrupt, to talk with partners, to ask questions, to give their reactions.
    b) But if you give the authority to the teacher then the person you want to hear from is the teacher. It’s more interesting for the teacher to spend 10 minutes educating their class than for the teacher to take 10 minutes of the children’s reactions!
    c) Don’t believe me? Think – if Albert Einstein came back to lecture on physics? If you were on the pitch with David Beckham learning how to take a free kick? Would you want to listen to Albert/David or the reactions of the other people in your class? Would you rather everyone silently concentrated, humbly practised and soaked up every word from ‘the master’ or would you rather Albert stopped 15 minutes early and asked, ‘who agrees with what I’ve said?’

    Pupils should be listening to their teachers…their opinions, reactions, impressions, questions are less important than their concentration, humility and determination to master the content they have been given.

    Teachers should be studying/have studied enough to feel worthy of that respect.

    When I teach, I am actually quite authoritarian. I don’t tolerate pupil dissent. But what do you think?

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