The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy within a system will always increase over time. What starts off as order descends, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but inexorably into chaos. In simple words: everything deteriorates over time. Fending off chaos and bolstering order requires continual effort and careful maintenance.
Whatever else it is, a school is a system. The orderly running of schools is something most people take completely for granted, but the balance between order and chaos, especially in secondary schools, is precarious. As they become teenagers, children begin to desire greater independence and autonomy. They believe themselves ready to face the challenges of the world and, some at least, push back at the seemingly arbitrary rules imposed upon them both at home and at school. Despite this, in well-run schools a small number of adults manage, for the most part, to keep children safe and teach them things on which they’ll be assessed.
Schools work because we – teacher and students – want them to. Students may rail against the unfairness of school rules but, the great majority of them nevertheless agree to comply. Most children understand school is a training ground; somewhere where mistakes can be made and that, once they leave school and venture into the adult world, they’ll probably be less free than ever. Rarely will they ever again encounter the same degree of tolerance and patience that they are offered whilst at school.
Anyone who’s ever worked in a school where the balance has tipped knows how awful schools can be when a critical mass of students no longer choose to comply. They become a jungle where the strong dominate the weak, where bullying, cruelty, violence and aggression quickly become the norm. Teaching an academic curriculum quickly becomes next to impossible and often the best teachers can do is to provide isolated bastions of safety within a roiling ocean. Here, a few hardy teachers impose order like warlords in a failed state*, but the corridors are a corpse strewn no man’s land.
I worked at a school in Special Measures for some years and the corridor outside my classroom was an exercise in entropy writ large. No matter what I did, litter accumulated in drifts. Some days I’d stand outside my classroom at break time moving students on and refusing to let them scatter crisps and throw fizzy drinks over displays. This would inevitably result in conflict. Exhausted, I’d retreat to the staff room knowing what I’d find on my return. In another school where I was Head of English, I’d stand at the top of stairway into the department and try, like Canute, to stem the tide of boiling testosterone and introduce some measure of calm. With the help of senior leaders and colleagues, we managed to create an environment where fights were few and the more boisterous demonstrations of teenage life were rare. This needed constant vigilance, but a temporary truce in the ongoing war of attrition between order and chaos became possible. If the entrance and exit into the department weren’t carefully monitored, consequences were swift and sometimes disastrous. For a taste of the sort of behaviour that’s reasonably typical of my experience see this thread by Katie Ashford:
Corridor anecdote: In one school, lovely teachers created a small “corridor library” in the Eng dept. Within TWO DAYS every single book had either been ripped apart or adorned with drawings of penises. And then I saw one lad pour an entire can of coke over the whole lot.
— Katie Ashford (@katie_s_ashford) October 22, 2018
In addition, Old Andrew has blogged about the worst behaviour in school corridors.
This, I believed was The Way Things Were. I’d worked for a short time in a girls’ school were students did manage to walk around the site unsupervised without causing chaos, but in all the other schools I’ve worked, corridors have been hell. I honestly never imagined anything else was possible. Then, in 2014, I went to visit King Solomon Academy in London. Not only had I never seen silent corridors before, I’d never imagined such a thing was possible. At the time I didn’t really know what to think. Later, I went to visit Michaela School and saw, if anything, an even stricter regime. One thing that stands out from both these visits was how happy the pupils were. They were aware that other schools are not like theirs and talked about the endemic bullying at friends’ schools. But the insistence on order in all things meant that bullying was almost impossible.
Now, the success of these, and various other schools that have adopted, to coin Barry Smith’s phrase ‘warm but strict’ behaviour policies has led to a rising tide. Other schools have come to realise that expecting excellent behaviour from students is not only possible but achievable. My instinct is that there’s very little point trying to change anything else in a school until behaviour is good, but, once this has been achieved, it then becomes possible to put a more demanding curriculum in place and to focus on instruction that leads to students knowing far more than would otherwise have been the case.
So far so positive. In my naivety I might have expected all but the most deranged of onlookers to have applauded such a direction of travel with wild enthusiasm. But, sadly, this is not the case. Elements of the education community have mobilised on social media to condemn attempts to make schools safe places to learn by permanently excluding the most violent and aggressive pupils as “inhuman,” “barbaric,” “right-wing,” “fascist” and, predictably, “racist”. And most recently, attempts to impose silence on corridors have been described in this lamentably poor example of ‘journalism’ as, “a rule that recalls Miss Trunchbull’s sinister control of her pupils, or Gilead’s handmaidens shuffling about, eyes downwards and whispering behind their hands.”
Like headteacher, Michael Tidd, on the subject of silent corridors “I have no strong feelings either way.” If schools feel it necessary to insist on silence in order to make their corridors safe, so be it. If schools have other ways to ensure children’s behaviour in corridors is calm, orderly, respectful and safe, great.
I do, however, have strong feelings about the hateful hyperbole that gushes in vile torrents at any and every attempt to maintain order in schools. These are decision that should be made by headteachers, not pundits. If a headteacher believes silent corridors are the best way to keep their students safe, why on earth would anyone gainsay them? Being silent for a few minutes between lessons is not likely to do anyone any harm and may well provide much needed opportunity for mindful reflection. Certainly, such a regime is likely to be warmly welcomed by the most vulnerable of children.
Arguing against rules designed to protect children’s wellbeing is hard to understand. If behaviour has broken down to the point where silence feels the only way to reclaim the corridors, then not talking for brief moments seems a microscopically tiny price to pay. Why on earth should any child have the right to behave in a way that makes others unsafe? If parents want to argue that their child should be aloud to shriek and bully their way between lessons I have little sympathy. They’re more than welcome to allow their children to behave reprehensibly in their own homes and, if they can find a school to tolerate such selfishness, opt to move their children elsewhere. Either way, such mad bleating deserves to be ignored not amplified and encouraged. And if you don’t work in a school where children feel routinely threatened by dangerous corridor behaviour, you’ve got no skin in the game at all.
Either offer to show us all how to make schools safe and orderly without rules by applying to work in an inner-city local secondary school and requesting to be given the most challenging classes, or jog on.
*Hat tip to Tom Bennett for this lusty simile.