Should schools have rules? Obviously, yes. No one – I think – disputes the necessity of having rules that keep people safe and make life easier and more pleasant for everyone involved. So, a rule setting out acceptable behaviour in a science lab or DT workshop are clearly important and sensible. Rules governing minimum expectations of how students should behave in classrooms and social spaces are also desirable, as are rules about how teachers should and should not interact with children. So far, so good.

But the sorts of school rules that tend to get the commentariat aerated are those which seem arbitrary. One of the most predictable flash points is around school uniform. British schools are relative outliers in insisting a uniform be worn (this tends not to be the norm in most other developed nations) and generations of students have looked for ways to subvert these rules. When I was a student, it was considered the height of fashion to wear one’s tie with the fat end tucked into the shirt with only a long, narrow strip of tie on display. For the most part, none of our teachers seemed to mind about this so we pushed the boundaries of acceptable sock colours. Back in the mid 80s, white terry-towelling socks were considered pretty cool by teenage boys and so great efforts were made to get away with wearing them. This was where my school drew an absolute line. Skinny ties were fine but white socks were absolutely verboten. Obviously, none of this made any sense. No one ever even attempted to give us a plausible reason for the banning of white socks, they were just banned. We knew this and accepted the consequences for taking the risk.

Despite all this, I absolutely think that school uniforms are a good idea. As an example of why, the effects of non-uniform days on the most disadvantaged students are hard to ignore. And, if we’re going to have uniforms, we need to have a requirement that the uniform be worn. How strict these rules are varies from school to school. I’ve worked in schools where the only clear line was drawn on wearing trainers of any colour other than black, and I’ve worked in schools where students were expected to have their top shirt buttons done up at all times. Personally, I prefer laxer uniform rules – I’m just not someone who finds it easy to sweat stuff this small because I just don’t see it – but I fully accept and understand that if a school has rules, then all staff need to take responsibility for ensuring the rules are upheld.

Having a rule and allowing it to be routinely flouted is the worst possible choice. This teaches children to have contempt for adult authority which is a poor lesson as they’ll be adults themselves all too soon. But having a rule and applying a consequence inflexibly is almost as bad. Rules – especially the more arbitrary rules around hair, make-up and shirt buttoning preferences – are there to be kicked against. We hold the line not because these things matter but to prevent students from chipping away at the important rules governing safety and harmony. If children are trying to get away with a bit of eyeliner or a skin fade, so the argument goes, then they’ll be less invested in setting fire to the drama studio or nicking the Year 7’s lunch money. But because these rules don’t really matter, we need to be very flexible about how we apply consequences. For instance, it’s fine to have a rule forbidding brightly coloured hair dye but it’s ludicrous to insist on external exclusion until the dye grows out. Sanctions need to be proportionate. Or, as the horny old adage goes, certainly of consequences is far more important than severity.

Getting all this right is tough. Who’d be a headteacher? Sometimes it seems you have a choice between allowing standards to slip to the point where no one’s learning anything and finding yourself the subject of a social media witch hunt for striving to dig a school out of a pit. This post by Oli Knight does an excellent job of suggesting some proxies for better decision making in schools. He suggests the following very sound advice:

  1. Always run a new process or policy past a serving Headteacher. Get them to sense check the underlying reason for the idea.
  2. Always bring it home first – before deciding on a course of action I hypothetically apply that action to a member of my own family. How would they feel and react? If it feels unpalatable, then you probably shouldn’t proceed.
  3. Always link it into the school vision – does the proposed course of action strengthen the school vision for our students. If it does not directly link to the vision, consider stopping and re-evaluating

Only top of this, here are five principles specifically on setting and upholding school rules:

1 Limit the rules

Have the fewest number of rules possible. Collect together all the rules you have currently and commit to getting rid of around half of them*. Invite as wide an audience as possible to discuss which of the current rules are the most and least important. You might be surprised at how liberating an exercise this might prove to be.

2 What we permit we promote

Anything you allow to happen in your school will become socially normal. Human beings tend to approve of those things we see regularly and assume the horrors that surround them are just the way things are. If you accept something it will become acceptable. Think carefully about whether this is what you really want. If it’s not, maybe you need another rule.

3 Certainty not severity

As argued above, rules and sanctions are distinct; just because you need a rule doesn’t mean the punishment for infraction needs to be harsh. Think carefully about the type of rule being broken: if a student has brought a knife into school and is threatening others with it then permanent exclusion may be on the cards. If a student has walked the wrong way around the one way system during lesson time when no other students are around, maybe just let them know you’ve spotted them, reiterate why it’s important to follow the system at lesson change overs, and send them on their way. Flexibility isn’t weakness; making sensible, proportionate accommodations will be respected.

4 Relationships require respect

While relationships are crucial, it’s not “all about relationships”. We need to have respect for people we don’t know, not just those for whom we have some sort of personal connection. Rules which require students to smile, be charming, open doors for others all grease the wheels of a harmonious society. When rules guarantee minimum standards of mutual respect, relationships have the space to blossom. This means we should have low tolerance for rudeness, defiance and aggression – these behaviours always need to be curbed. But punishing children for not opening a door would be daft; instead, we should model why it’s worthwhile with warmth and patience until they get it.

5 Act as a proxy for the real world

Schools are, by and large, safe places to make mistakes. One of our responsibilities is to prepare students for entry into a larger, more unforgiving adult world. In the real world lack of punctuality results in being fired so in schools we should take the trouble to insist students arrive at lessons in a timely manner. In the real world, violence and aggression ends in prison so in school we need to stamp down hard on these behaviours not only because they make schools unsafe but because we’re preparing children for the requirement to weigh consequences, keep tempers and resolves disputes reasonably. Some of the rules we have in schools – where to eat lunch, how to walk, how to interact in a classroom – don’t have their equivalent in the adult world. That’s because these rules become unwritten. Normally social behaviour tends not to need definition for adults but for children, learning how to interact in all sorts of new situations, defining the rules really helps.