What kinds of poor behaviour should we tolerate? How much should we tolerate? There’s a wellspring of opinion that zero tolerance is too much, that we ought to tolerate some poor behaviour, but how much? I don’t think anyone would be prepared to argue that we should tolerate 100%, so is 50% OK? 25%? 10%?

Clearly, having a discussion about the percentage of poor behaviour which we ought to tolerate is absurd. Maybe we’d be better off debating whether some kinds of poor behaviour are just ‘high spirits’? The trouble with this is that it’s devilishly difficult to distinguish between good-humoured banter and bullying. What might to some look like ‘letting off steam,’ to others feels like inhabiting a climate of intimidation and fear. Just as senior leaders work in a very different school to their more junior colleagues, the experience of teachers and students, in the same school, can be hugely different. And, of course, it follows that the experiences of children within the same school varies enormously also. Some children maybe thrive on a tide of rufty-tufty boisterousness. Some children can get the most out of lessons where shouting the loudest gets the most attention. Some children are fortunate enough to have the resources not to need school nearly as much as some of their less privileged peers.

One of the problems is that there are parents – often middle class, advantaged parents – who actively work against their children’s schools being safe, orderly institutions. Of course parents ought to support their children, but some undermine teachers at every turn and take their children’s part to an unhelpful degree. As a parent I support my children’s school’s right not to accept excuses for bad behaviour. Of course, as I’ve argued before, there are usually reasons for such behaviour and some of these reasons may even be good ones, but these reasons, heartbreaking though they may be, are not an excuse to break the rules. But I’m not sure most of the bad behaviour in schools can be laid at the feet of the most disadvantaged. In my experience, badly behaved children from more affluent backgrounds present far more of a problem.

The problem is the attitude of parents. There is never an excuse for parents actively fighting against the school when their children are in breach of the school’s behaviour policy. If we accept children’s, or parents’, excuses then we tolerate a worse educational experience for everyone. If instead we take account of children’s, and parents’ reasons and work with them to take responsibility for these reasons not to be used as excuses, then the experience of everyone involved in education – children, parents and teachers – ought to improve.

The late comedian and Radio 4 panelist, Jeremy Hardy’s routine on ‘bright children‘ gets to the heart of the problem: middle class parents routinely excuse their children’s terrible behaviour because they’re “so bright”:

That’s why they’re doing so badly at school, because they’re so bright. Teachers don’t understand their answers, you see, because they’re so bright. The reason they misbehave in the classroom is because they’re bored, because they’re so bright. They’re not being stretched. Hermione’s so bright and that’s why she misbehaves; she so much brighter than the other children. That’s why she sets fire to them, I think.

Some of the schools I visit with the worst behaviour climates are those with the most privileged intakes. Children feel entitled to misbehave, see themselves as better than their teachers and have contempt for all adult authority. Learning contempt for adult authority is a terrible life lesson, not least because children are destined to become adults themselves. If they learn that the adult world routinely accepts insolence, laziness and aggression, what are they learning about their own futures?

Children – like adults – are not naturally good. Human beings are – at least in part – naturally out for themselves. Morality emerges as a result of what types of behaviour are most likely to get us what we want. Over the millennia, we have collectively worked out that being honest and reliable is a much better bet than being shiftless and unscrupulous. As a general rule, wider society is far more intolerant of bad behaviour than schools are.

No one else is ever going to love our children as much as we do. Like all parents, there are times when my children’s behaviour makes me dislike them. If I allow them to behave in ways that annoy me, then odds are, people who are not predisposed to love them will be infinitely less tolerant of their foibles.

Here are some principles* which might help us in our endeavours to be ‘warm but strict’:

  1. Limit the rules – if there are too many rules – or if they are too complicated – then they become hard to follow. We naturally want to follow desire paths and rules should take account of this. What are the fewest possible rules we need in schools?
  2. Use minimum force necessary – obviously (OBVIOUSLY!) we should always avoid physical force unless there’s an imminent risk of someone getting hurt. What’s important is we should use the minimum compulsion necessary. What is the least severe sanction that might be effective?
  3. Don’t do it alone –  if you’re operating in isolation, without the support of your school, everything is harder. If children don’t obey the school’s rules it is each individual teacher’s responsibility to do something about it. This only works if the there is a system designed to support teachers.
  4. Understand your own capacity for injustice– we’re much more likely to do something unjust when not being our best selves. It’s far easier to fool ourselves if we’re alone, but if we have support a calmer head can hep us out. We should always ask whether students have really broken the rules or whether we’re taking out our frustrations unjustly.
  5. Act as a proxy for the real world – school is a relatively safe environment to fail in. The punishments for mistakes are infinitely less harsh than those children will experience when they’re adults. If we balk at our duty to help socialise our students we will be setting them up for a life of misery.

What we tolerate teaches children important life lessons. The more tolerant we are of anti-social behaviour, the harder children will find it to find their place in the adult world. When considering what we’re prepared to put up with in school, we should remember that if we tolerate this then our children will be next.

* Adapted from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, p. 142