Thursday, May 06, 2010


For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in....

David Cameron is going to restore discipline in schools.

"Restore." Fine word, "restore".

You might think that the "conservative" party would be the "leave things as they are" party; the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" party; the "even if it is broke it's got such a complex mechanism that fiddling with it will probably only make it worse" party.

But Cameron's Conservatives think that everything is broken, especially Britain, so everything has to be fixed. The "conservative" party is now the party of change. Time for a change, we can't go on like this, that black chappie in America kept banging on about change, and everyone liked him, for a few weeks, at least.

"Restore." There was a time when we had this thing called "discipline". Now, we do not have this thing called "discipline". Vote for us, and we will have this thing called "discipline" again. Vote Tory. Vote nostalgia. Vote golden age.

Even if you buy the idea that schools aren't as good as they used to be, then to talk about restoring "discipline" makes exactly the same amount of sense as talking about restoring "weather". Oh, we used to have so much more weather in the old days! But then the pinko liberals came along, and we don't have weather any more! But elect us, and we'll have just as much weather as we used to have in the old days! If school A gives every child who gets through the gates before 8.55 a jelly baby, and school B keeps every child who come through the gates after 9.01 in at playtime, then school A does not have more discipline than school B, any more than there is more weather on snowy days than on sunny days. School A and School B have different kinds of discipline, and -- depending on your philosophical prejudices -- you may prefer one kind to the other. If you shared my philosophical prejudices -- which are the right and correct philosophical prejudices -- then you would prefer School C which lets the kids arrive at whatever time they like doesn't have any punishments of any kind, makes everyone bathe naked in the brook and gets closed down after a ferocious lion and a mob of medieval knights rampages through it. But I rather doubt that my philosophical prejudices ought to be imposed on everybody by central government fiat. I rather think that parents, teachers and school governors should sort them out for themselves.

So how is Dave going to restore the lost golden age when children were well-behaved, summers were longer, women were braver and soldiers were more beautiful?

1: If a child is naughty, Teacher may say "I am going to keep you in after school tomorrow evening." Dave thinks that Teacher ought to be able to say "I am going to keep you in after school this evening."

2: If a child is very naughty indeed, Teacher may kick him out of school. But if his parents think that this was unfair, they can ask to have the incident looked at again by special "getting kicked out of school" tribunals, who may decide that Teacher over-reacted and let the child go back to school. Dave thinks it would be better if Teacher's decision were final.

3: Nearly all schools make children wear clothes of the same colour and with a badge of some sort on them. Dave thinks that the schools which don't do this kind of thing ought to start. Some schools give older pupils some responsibility to supervise younger ones. Dave thinks this is a good idea.

4: Teacher is worried that if he searches a child to see if he has brought bangers, catapults, pea shooters, flick knives or crack cocaine to school (or if he physically separates two children who are having a scuffle in the playground) he may be be accused of being a paedo by the child's parents, the News of the World, or the Strasburg Court of Human Rights. Dave thinks he shouldn't be.

These ideas appear to be

a: entirely non-controversial
b: trivial
c: non ideological and
d: not likely to do very much harm or very much good

It is actually quite cute that poshboy thinks that in the oikish state schools of broken Britain, feral drug crazed hoodies hold everyone to ransom with knives and guns -- but that if we made a rule that they had to wear blazers with the school motto on them they would

a: start wearing the damn blazers and
b: stop murdering each other.

I would have thought that point 3 was just the kind of "big government" micromanagement that Dave disapproves of. Some schools seem to do quite well with a uniforms and prefects ethos, and others to do equally well with counselling and soft furniture. Point 4 is tilting at windmills: the notion that a teacher can't pull two fighting boys apart because of newman rites and plitickle krectness is, I suspect, a fantasy, like the fantasy (which Gordon believes in) about schools abolishing football and netball because they are too competitive, or the fantasy (which Dave believe in) that teachers are not allowed to put sticking plaster on a grazed knee without filling out complex risk assessment paperwork.

Point 1 is more fun. I was at school in the idyllic days before "discipline" had been un-restored and when every episode of Doctor Who was scientifically accurate. We certainly had a rule that said you couldn't be given a detention without 24 hours notice, although it was more honoured in the breach than the observance. (Our psychotic headmaster reasoned you must have known that you were planning to be naughty when you set out for school in the morning, and should therefore have informed your mother of this over breakfast, and therefore had had your 24 hours notice.) But nowadays, few children live within walking distance of their school ("greater choice"); and no family can pay the mortgage without two parents in full time work ("joy as house prices go up for the tenth month in a row"); and few families are prepared to allow children to travel to school unaccompanied ("if you take your eye off him for one second he'll be eaten by the big bad venables"). So it would seem that Nanny does need 24 hours notice if Johnny is going to be late home, so she can rearrange the Chauffeur's schedule. Carers do need to know if their kids are going to be home at 4 o'clock or 5 o'clock.

Dave goes on and on and on about the child who was expelled from school for attacking someone with a knife, but reinstated by an appeals panel. I bet there were two sides to the story. It may even turn out that it's the kind of story that isn't literally true, in the same way that the banning of conkers and sticking plaster and netball and the Hitler Diaries were not literally true. But surely most people would agree that children and their parents have some kinds of rights? If it's reasonable for parents to fight and plead and appeal and campaign and move house in order to get their kid into "the best" state school then surely they've got some right of appeal if that kid is chucked out of the school they fought so hard to get him into?

Parents have a theoretical right to choose "the best" state school for their child; but state schools do not have the right to select pupils based on ability. (Except in Kent. Obviously.) This has made some people suspicious that some headmasters are using their right to expel (or "exclude") pupils, not so much as a punishment, but more as a sort of back door selection procedure: Jimmy got kicked out of school, not because he drew a dirty picture on the walls of the girls toilet, but because he's not very bright, speaks with a common accent, doesn't come from the right side of town and was going to get the sort of exam results that would bring our Average Grades right down. So some sort of appeals procedure would seem necessary on the ground of natural justice. It's all very well for Dave to say that headteachers should be captains of their own ship, but we don't want them sending the whole school off on a fruitless personal quest to exact revenge on the white whale, do we? Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ask Tony.

This is, incidentally, why we could never go back to the good old caning days, however much contributors to the Daily Mail's comment section might salivate at the idea. You could probably still whip up some support for the idea of mild physical violence being part of the learning process. But since the 1980s, we've become very much less tolerant of arbitrary authority; and much more concerned about fairness and transparency. School punishments are summary punishments almost by definition -- and while we're probably prepared to put up with a miscarriage of justice which results in the offender spending a few minutes in the naughty corner, I don't think we're any longer be prepared to say that if Teacher decides to hit Johnny then Johnny should just accept it and be hit even if he didn't do anything wrong because Teacher is Teacher and therefore always right even when he isn't.

And this, I suspect, is what Dave really means by "discipline". He doesn't mean the various tricks of the trade that teachers use to secure an orderly classroom where they can teach a good lesson. He means the idea that in the Olden Days, we did what Teacher or Headmaster said up to and including letting them hurt us -- just because they were Teachers and Headmasters. Arbitrary authority. Knowing your place. You can see why someone who aspires to run the country would like the idea.

It may be even nastier than that. When they heard the news that call-me-Dave was going to restore discipline and go back to calling Snickers Marathon, the Nasty Mail ran an unfunny cartoon in which a teacher was installing all manner of ghoulish torture devices – the stocks, a rack, an iron maiden – in his office. Now, Nasty Mail readers don't actually think that naughty children ought to have spikes driven through their eyes. At least, I assume they don't. Had the cartoon appeared in the Guardian, the message would have been "Careful! Restoration of 'discipline' could so easily become a pretext for cruelty!" But Mac was clearly saying to Mail readers "Don't get your hopes up! This talk of 'discipline' won't go nearly as far as it ought to."

Two days later, the Nasty Mail dedicated it's front page to a story about a teacher who had, and I'm not making this up, beaten a child about the head with a heavy piece of weight training equipment, shouting "Die! Die! Die!" (This was deemed to be a bigger news item than the third and final Prime Ministerial debate, in which most people thought Dave had performed rather well.) Instead of locking him up and throwing away the key, which is what the Mail usually advises in these kinds of cases, the jury had decided to "free" the teacher concerned, which both the judge and the Nasty Mail described as a common sense decision.

Now, the Mail headline writers don't do "nuance" very well. What the judge felt was "a common sense" decision was convicting the Teacher of the very serious crime of "causing grievous bodily harm", but acquitting him of the very, very serious crime of "causing grievous bodily harm with intent." (That is: it was a criminal attack, but not a pre-meditated criminal attack.) He was "freed", not in the sense that the judge thought that breaking children's heads was not a serious offence; but in the sense that he felt that "time served" was sufficient punishment for the serious criminal offence he'd been convicted of. He also took into account the teacher's state of mind when he "went postal". It has to be said that the Nasty Mail isn't usually sympathetic to the idea of criminals getting lenient sentences because they are poorly rather than bad. They usually explain that we've gone soft on crime, political correctness gone mad, rebalance justice in favour of the victim, what about our human rights, bring back the rope, string em up. It is hard to avoid the sense that in this case they were beatifying the attacker and demonizing the victim because the one was a teacher and the other a pupil: in the good old days, when a teacher wanted to crack your skull open, you took it like a man and laughed about it with your mates in the playground afterwards. Of course a fundamentally decent teacher will, sooner or later, physically maim a pupil who has been told off several times in the last term, who is pretending to sword fight with a ruler and who uttered a word beginning with F that no Nasty Mail readers, and certainly no teacher in a comprehensive school, has ever heard uttered before. In the face of such overwhelming evil, how many of us wouldn't reach for the dumbbell?

Simon Heffer, writing in the Nasty Telegraph, made the point extremely succinctly:

Give tormented teachers the right to fight back...

Finally flipped and hit a particularly revolting offender....

The sorts of children who behave so badly often have parents who are little better than animals...

And that's the point, isn't it? We aren't talking about human beings who occasionally need to be re-orientated towards the straight and narrow with a clip round the ear or a whack on the backside. We aren't talking about being firm with young men so they grow up to be warriors and bankers. We are talking about a war situation; a war between Us, readers of the Nasty Mail and the Nasty Telegraph, and Them, the Chavs, the Oiks, the underclass, literally bestial, sub-human, feral, little better than animals. In the war against the sub-humans, it is perfectly reasonable for a teacher to want to indulge in violent retaliation. Mr Harvey's only offence was that he struck one of the morlocks rather too hard.

What Cameron proposes are some minor bureaucratic changes to the regulations about keeping naughty boys in at play time. (It's pathetic: really, really, pathetic.) But when he writes the word "discipline" in three foot high letters on poster hoardings, he intends his followers to hear: "the absolute, arbitrary power of teacher to use whatever means necessary in the war between you, your children, and the sub humans."


Everyone on the amusing comedy Prime Ministers debate agreed that Immigration was a bad thing, a problem, a thing that we need a solution to. And I'm shouting at the TV: "No! Immigration is a Good Thing! I live near St Pauls, I lived in Tooting Bec, I like the fact that that the Hindu Temple and the Salvation Army citadel are on the same street, I like the fact that I see women in Bristol wearing exotic Somali headwear, I am no more freaked by the lady who wears specs over her hijab than I am by the man with a pierced tongue or the guy in the gym with a tatoo on his arse – it seems weird to me but some of the stuff I do probably seems weird to them, it's really, really great that everyones different and I really, postively, genuinely, love it when I hear kids talking a mixture of British Asian and Brizzle ("where's Rashid to, innit?").

And everyone on the amusing comedy Prime Minister's Debate nodded sagely and said yes, discipline, discipline, that's what yes we need (they've all developed yes Tony's habit of putting the word "yes" in the middle of sentences) and I'm yes shouting at the TV, "No, we want less discipline, less rules, less arbitrary authority, less schooling, hardly any punishments, hardly any violence, hardly any coercion, happy kids, less literacy hours, less numeracy hours, no football unless you like football, more free time to read comic books."

And everyone on the amusing comedy Prime Minister's Debate agreed that in the middle of yes a really bad recession you had to coerce the unemployed into going to yes work because when shops and business are closing (Mrs yes Thatcher already closed all the factories, and, incidentally, David, she was the one who stopped teachers from hitting children) when shops are closing and people are being laid off then of course the main reason people are unemployed is because they are lazy and don't want to work. On your effing bike.

I am not a hard working family. I'm a lazy singleton. I don't believe in discipline. I like foreigners. I don't want anyone to be tough on criminals. I don't want to be tough on the unemployed. I don't want to be tough on anybody, and I certainly don't want anybody to tough on me. I want to vote for the Nice Party, but there isn't one. I am on no-one's side, because no-one is on my side.

Vote lizard, otherwise the wrong lizard might get elected.


Unknown said...


Mike Taylor said...

"or the fantasy (which Dave believe in) that teachers are not allowed to put sticking plaster on a grazed knee without filling out complex risk assessment paperwork."

Actually, this one is more or less true. For example, at our village school, where my two younger sons attend and the eldest did until last year, if a child is on prescription medicine, one of the parents has to physically come in to the school and give it to the child at the appointed hour: the teachers and other staff are expressly prohibited from doing this.

Martin said...

I quite like the idea that the Nasty Press is in favour of some sort of Class War...

Andrew Rilstone said...


I found this on the health and safety website:

So either there are specific rules about medicine which is different from the rules about plaster (which there might be) or else your school is going beyond what H & S rules actually require (which is also possible.)

JWH said...

Sometimes your writing is just brilliant.

JWH said...

Or better: Sometimes your writing is yes, just brilliant.

Andrew Rilstone said...

William Hartnell voice: "Only sometimes, dear boy?"

Thank you very much.

Mike Taylor said...

So either there are specific rules about medicine which is different from the rules about plaster (which there might be) or else your school is going beyond what H & S rules actually require (which is also possible.)

My guess is the former. I know the school pretty well, and it's not one to impose additional restrictions.

Gavin Burrows said...

And this, I suspect, is what Dave really means by "discipline..." He means the idea that in the Olden Days, we did what Teacher or Headmaster said up to and including letting them hurt us -- just because they were Teachers and Headmasters. Arbitrary authority. Knowing your place. You can see why someone who aspires to run the country would like the idea.

Very true, of course.

But what interests me is how come it plays. Why is it such a bone to so many people? Similarly, why is immigration such a bone, even for people who live nowhere near high-immigration or cosmopolitan areas?

This isn't a rhetorical question! I'd really love to hear anyone's stab at answering it!

Sam Dodsworth said...

Gavin - I have my own answers, but this is quite a good place to start:

Paul Brown said...

@Mike & Andrew
The medicine / plaster thing isn't restricted to schools - I renewed my first aid certification last year and the same rules apply to me; I can apply bandages and plasters and clean wounds, but I am not allowed to administer medication (not even paracetamol) to anyone. Until fairly recently I was allowed to use Epipens in the event of an anaphalactic attack, but not any more, mostly due to too many injuries caused to the first aiders holding them the wrong way up (I kid you not) and shooting themselves in the thumb with adrenaline.

Schools are just bound by the same rules as every other workplace in the country.

Paul Brown said...

Oh, also, on the subject of immigration, Andrew, I have another reason to like it as well the whole "meeting different people is nice and also good for you" one (although I do like that too); from a purely selfish and hard-nosed capitalist perspective, immigration is better because you get a fully grown and, at least partly, trained adult ready to make a contribution to your society. Children, although usually cuter, require more money, resources and effort and can take twenty years or more to start putting back into the economy. Stealing workers from Poland and Lithuania is good for us and bad for them. They should be more upset about it than us.

Martin said...

Migration seems intrinsically bound up with the globalization that everyone in power claims to be so keen on. It's like with anti-immigration politics we're seeing the last gasp of nationalism before its demise. I remember in the 70s all those "Buy British" adverts trying to help with balance of payments after the collapse of the Bretton-Woods agreement. That campaign wasn't so much an attempt to prevent imports as an emotional reaction to the fact that we we'd given up on manufacturing. Now we have union flags on our milk to symbolise the fact that most of our groceries are imported. And we have anti-immigration politics because soon no-one is going to care where the people around them were born.

Gavin Burrows said...

Thanks to Sam for the link. Only had time to give it a cursory look so far, and it reminded me of Fromm's Fear Of Freedom. Am I close?

Sam Dodsworth said...

I'd not heard of Fromm before now - Wikipedia makes him sound like more of a theorist than Altmeyer, but I can't really comment. Is he any good?

Gavin Burrows said...

Well I read Fear Of Freedom for my degree, which was approximately a quarter-century ago, and insofar as I remember that's the only one I've ever read right through. So when I say "worth reading" take my judgement with the proverbial pinch!

He's a Marxist Humanist, which seems to be rather out of fashion now. Not materialist enough for the Marxists, while everyone else insists Marxism is all over! A lot of people on the Marxist side lump him in with explanations for fascism which are psychological not historical. Which they (correctly) point out should mean we get fascism all the time or never.

But that's only one section of the book! I think he's more talking about a tendency to a psychological type, of which fascism is just a more virulent example. (Cue argument after an earlier post...)

SK said...

Oh yes, happy kids, that's what we want. Happy kids and fewer teachers. I mean, ideally, no teachers. Not in charge, anyway. Then the kids can do what they like: play football, if that's what they want to do, read comic books, stick the severed heads of pigs on spikes. Whatever.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, yes: the Nasty Parties believe that children are Bad and without Discipline will turn into Lord of the Flies savages. (The Nasty Press peddle a fantasy that This Has Already Happened.) The Nice Party doesn't believe this. (Doesn't believe that all modern schools have degenerated into Lord of the Flies dystopia; doesn't believe that this automatically happens when you remove Discipline.) I was making the case for the Nice party.

SK said...

I was pointed to this web-log, by someone who was also not impressed by Cameron:

SK said...

(To be clear, the web-log is by someone who was not impressed by Cameron (though I don't think the person who pointed me to is was terribly impressed by him either)).