The Tories’ New Discipline Drive Prepares Some Kids for Work and Others for Prison

Young people say they are fighting 'oppression and authoritarianism' in their classrooms.

by Sophie K Rosa

20 April 2021

Boris Johnson visits a school in Pimlico
Boris Johnson visits a school in Pimlico in 2019 (Number 10/ Flickr)

“At Bedford Free School, we sweat the small stuff,” says Stuart Lock, CEO of multi-academy trust Advantage Schools, in a video announcing a government crackdown on students’ behaviour. He lists “forgetting equipment”, “not paying attention for 100% of the time” and “talking off-task” as infractions that are “really taken seriously here”.

Earlier this month, the Department for Education announced a three-year ‘behaviour hubs’ programme, due to begin in the summer term. Twenty-two ‘high performing’ schools and multi-academy trusts around the country have been selected to train staff at 500 other schools to adopt “systematic approaches to maintaining order and discipline”. The regimes could include, for example, enforcing silent corridors and banning mobile phones. The crackdown on behaviour in schools is apparently predicated on the belief, touted by education secretary Gavin Williamson, that children have lost “discipline and order” during lockdown.

Aliyah York, a sixth-form student who founded the campaign group Pupil Power, is troubled by the government policy, arguing that a “zero-tolerance” approach to behaviour is “divisive” and will disproportionately impact the most marginalised students.

“We haven’t lost discipline and order,” she argues, “we’ve lost time with social groups, we’ve lost time with friends and family, we’ve suffered grief… we’ve lost so, so, so much.” Pupils need “emotional wellbeing support”, she says, not harsher “sanctions”.

Primary school teacher and National Education Union (NEU) officer James McAsh agrees, saying that “‘poor behaviour’ is a symptom of something else”. The task of educators, he argues, is to adopt a “child-centred approach”, supporting pupils with whatever is causing their challenging behaviour. In the wake of the pandemic, he says, this means giving children “lots of opportunities” to do the things they’ve missed out on – not creating a “culture of fear”.

The government’s behaviour tsar Tom Bennett – who is behind the ‘Behaviour Hubs’ programme – wrote in a 2017 report on disciplining students that “outward behaviour [is] a far more obvious lever [for school leaders] to address than [pupils’] internal mental states”.

Bennett’s punitive approach to students’ conduct, says Sam Berkson – a sixth-form teacher and former senior leader at a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) – reflects a “behaviourist vision”. Rather than looking at “internal or mental processes”, he says, ‘behaviourism’ seeks to manipulate “outward behaviour” using “reinforcements and stimulus – and pleasure and pain, essentially”.

According to the government, “orderly and disciplined classrooms” are part of preparing young people “for the expectations of the workplace”. McAsh agrees, but he doesn’t see this as an unequivocally good thing.  “One of the functions of education in the capitalist system is to socialise children and young people into becoming compliant workers,” he explains. The new crackdown, then, “is not just about children learning to behave while they’re in school, it’s about children learning what they need to do under the capitalist system – and what the Tories want them to do is to get on with what they’re told.”


The fact that academies are among those leading the Behaviour Hubs scheme is linked to the “privatisation of education”, says Berkson – which includes “the imposition of a more neoliberal form of management, based around the values of competition, and breaking the powers of local authorities”.

One aspect of this, he says, is increasingly intolerant and punitive approaches to students’ behaviour – and ultimately, more exclusions. Whereas in local authority schools, there is usually at least some effort to keep pupils in school, competition-motivated academies have “much more freedom to use exclusions,” and to “dump [students deemed to have challenging behaviour] on the local authority,” he says.

Zero-tolerance behaviour policies and exclusions disproportionately affect racialised, working-class and disabled pupils, who have also been more impacted by the pandemic. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller and Black students, and children with learning difficulties bear the brunt.

Berkson decided to teach in a PRU because – unlike mainstream schools – it gave him the freedom to treat students as individuals, with respect and care, taking their specific experiences and backgrounds into account.

Rather than “a behaviour policy”, he says, what works in his classroom is asking the question: “What is this behaviour telling us?” And in response, finding “ways to help”. Much of this is achieved through genuinely engaging students in ways that motivate them, he says – for example, his teaching has included creating live radio shows, rap, city farms, and bike maintenance. Ultimately, however, he does not want ‘alternative provision’ to exist, and believes in a “non-exclusionary form of education,” where all students feel welcome and have their needs met.

Berkson isn’t against “agreed-upon conduct and rules within the classroom,” but believes teachers have a duty to model “tolerance and understanding”. With zero-tolerance behaviour policies, he says, teachers may instead end up “modelling authoritarianism” and “bullying”.

Roxy Legane, founder of Kids of Colour and a steering group member of the Northern Police Monitoring Project, says “unreasonable behavioural standards” in schools reflect increasing authoritarianism in society – and are “set knowing that some young people won’t be able to reach them”. Sometimes, pupils “won’t meet them because these are ridiculous expectations of children,” she says, “but they also aid discrimination”. Some students are unable to meet expectations because they have special educational needs, or because “they are racialised and working-class and their behaviours are viewed through a prejudiced lens,” she says. As a Black student, York says her “passion” is sometimes “perceived as aggression, or anger, or disruption”.

Throwing some pupils “under the bus in favour of the rest of the class,” says Legane, is “the point” of zero-tolerance behaviour policies. “The government doesn’t want everyone to pass through education,” she says. “While the education system prepares young people for work, it also prepares some for prison.” Pointing to the government’s intention to open the first ‘secure school’ in 2022, and to create more prison places, she says: “These carceral systems need to be filled, and that criminalisation process must start young.”

What schools really need, says Legane, is resources – which have been stripped over the last decade. Rather than exerting power over and problematising individual students, she says, schools need funding for “counsellors, youth workers, additional teaching time” and to “support [pupils] with any challenges in their life outside of school”. And returning to school after the pandemic, she says, children and young people “need space to heal”.

York agrees, saying that “humanising” schools’ approaches to behaviour requires “communication and relationships”, listening to students’ voices, and recognising that every school, with “different children from different communities”, has unique needs.

Instead, in the government ordering schools not to use anti-capitalist resources, and now in the Behaviour Hubs scheme, she sees “a pattern of silencing positive disruption”. In a context of increasing resistance, she believes the state is aware that young people like her are questioning the system and challenging the “insidious policies” that perpetuate it. The government feels threatened by young people “putting their foot down”.

Last month hundreds of students at Pimlico Academy, a London secondary school, demanded action on the school’s institutional racism, and issues including transphobia, and this month NEU conference delegates passed No More Exclusions’ motion in favour of a moratorium on exclusions in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Students are more aware now than ever, York says, that they must not allow “oppression and authoritarianism” to become normalised in schools. “[We’re] not afraid to be critical and to step up when we’re being failed,” she says.

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.