How to challenge authority in schools: a beginner’s guide

There has been a bit of chatter on social media recently about whether or not the authority of a teacher or a school ought to be challenged. Words such as ‘fascist’ and ‘authoritarian’ have been thrown around. Schools have been compared to Nazi concentration camps, and, by implication, the professionals who work in those schools have been compared to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Now there are a few radicals out there who make these comparisons to attract attention, but I think we should recognise that there are people who have a genuine concern that schools model the values of liberal democracy.

Some caution needs to be exercised here. Living in a liberal democracy does not mean that the majority can have their way in any situation: if I take a taxi with friends we cannot ‘vote’ against paying our fare. Liberal democracies rely on laws, contracts and structures of authority: you cannot just ‘opt out’ of society on the grounds that you do not like something in its rules. Instead, we have a series of legitimate means of challenging people who hold power (and it is important to distinguish between the terms ‘power’ and ‘authority’). One way we challenge the powerful in a liberal democracy is by having legitimate forms of opposition based on the rule of law, which includes the courts and Parliament (distinguishing this from government). Our whole society is predicated on rules, and what distinguishes our system from dictatorship or tyranny is that everyone has to follow those rules.

Now we probably can debate whether schools should operate like political systems, but I do not really have a problem with the value structure of a school reflecting that of society. Just as in a liberal democracy we respect the rule of law, so too in schools should children respect the school rules. Just as in a liberal democracy we should expect consequences if we break those rules, then so too should children expect punishment if they break the rules. And, just as in a liberal democracy there are legitimate means of opposing the powerful, so too should there be legitimate means by which children and their parents can challenge those who hold power in schools.

To be clear, this is not about wanting to get rid of rules: a school without rules in no way reflects the values of liberal democracy. Rather, it is about dealing with the abuse of rules. This really comes down to two possibilities: (a) a teacher is not applying the rules fairly or consistently or (b) the school rules are too draconian. The first is where individual teachers are exercising arbitrary power over children. Good examples of this might be teachers not following whole-school policy, handing out punishments that are inappropriate, or perhaps in extreme cases bullying or victimising a child. The second form of concern is that the school as a whole has a policy that causes physical or emotional harm to children: perhaps where the school rules unreasonable or where the sanctions given for breaking the rules are too harsh.

Where these two things are happening, we should expect to have legitimate means of challenging teachers and school leaders. What options do we have?

  1. Speak to the teacher – I do not know a single teacher who would not be willing to sit down with a pupil or a parent at an appropriate time to discuss whether or not a miscarriage of justice has taken place. I have on occasion made errors – we are all human – and it is usually possible to correct these.
  1. The headteacher – headteachers are responsible for ensuring that the teachers in a school are following whole-school policy. If you think that whole-school policy is not being followed (e.g. a teacher is bullying a child or treating them unfairly) then you can write to the headteacher.
  1. Governors – governors are there to agree whole-school policy and to hold school senior leaders to account. If you feel that a school senior leader is not implementing whole-school policy, or if you think whole-school policy is wrong, then you can write to the Chair of Governors whose contact details can be found on the school’s website.
  1. Ofsted – Ofsted have a duty to protect children from harm and to ensure that schools are meeting their statutory safeguarding duties. If you feel that a school is failing to fulfil its duties to protect children from harm, then you can contact Ofsted directly to make a report. Where a sufficient number of concerns have been raised, an inspection may well be triggered.
  1. The police – the UK has laws concerning the welfare of children, designed to prevent children from physical and emotional abuse. If you think that a teacher, another adult in a school, or the institution, is breaking the law and abusing children, then please go to the police and report it. Anyone saying that a school is abusing children ought to be contacting the police immediately to report this.

All of these options are open for any state school in the country. We have multiple layers of opportunity with schools for challenging the power of teachers and school leaders. So here’s a suggestion. If you think children in schools are being treated like prisoners in concentration camps, then go to the police. If children are being harmed, such as being subjected to draconian rules that constitute physical or emotional abuse, then stop moaning about it on social media and do something about it. If abuse is happening, get the police involved. If you know parents of children in a school where teachers do not follow whole-school policy, then encourage them to speak to the school’s senior leaders. If you know parents who disagree with whole-school policy, then encourage them to speak to the school’s governors, or to make a collective referral to Ofsted.

If, on the other hand, you look at what is actually going on in schools – even the most strict – and you decide (a) that children are not suffering abuse and (b) that teachers are following whole-school policy then you might want to think twice about carelessly throwing out comparisons to horrific regimes that have caused the suffering of millions, including children.

For every time you use a word such as ‘fascist’ or ‘authoritarian’ to describe a school that is nothing of the sort, you are attenuating those words. The meaning of a word is its use in language, and when I call someone in the present a fascist or authoritarian, I want to conjure up images of murder, violence, concentration camps, illegal imprisonment, as were found in the regimes of infamous rulers such as Franco, Hitler, Stalin or Mao.

I do not want anyone to think I am referring to a teacher who insists on pupils following the rules.

5 Comments on How to challenge authority in schools: a beginner’s guide

  1. Tom Burkard // 22 December 2016 at 19:51 // Reply

    I think your comments rather miss the point. Objections to authority in school are more fundamental, and they are reflected in the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, which mandates the right of children to participate in the decisions that affect them. To show how surreal this has become, in 2009 the UN Children’s Rights Committee argued that

    “Research shows that the child is able to form views from the youngest age, even when she or he may be unable to express them verbally. Consequently, full implementation of article 12 requires recognition of, and respect for, non-verbal forms of communication including play, body language, facial expressions, and drawing and painting, through which very young children demonstrate understanding, choices and preferences.”

    In effect, this mindset demands that every conflict between adult and child must be negotiated, presumably in such a manner as to satisfy the child. If you think about it, this is fundamental to most forms of progressive education, where the learning belongs to the child and woe betide the teacher who thinks that listening to gangsta rap is not a valuable learning experience. In it its purest form, progressive education is anarchic. A S Niell, the founder of Summerhill, once urged a teacher to “…become one of the gang. Smash a window, chuck books about the room…anything to break this idea that you are an exalted being whose eye is like God’s, always ready to see evil”. To this day, pupils at Summerhill make all the rules, and attending classes is not obligatory.

    Ironically, if these ideologues cared to listen to children, they’d find that they greatly prefer it when grown-ups are in charge. This was forcefully brought home to me when I inspected Framingham Earl, a Norfolk comprehensive, for the 1999 Telegraph Good Schools Guide. They had a zero-tolerance discipline policy, which didn’t preclude lively debates in classes, nor did the pupils give the slightest indication of being repressed. At the end of the day I was left alone in the school library with all of the Year 11 pupils, who gave an articulate and impassioned defense of the policy.

    I’ve visited a lot of good schools since, and I’ve invariably found that good discipline is not the harsh artefact that many people suppose it to be. Invariably, it is internalised by pupils who understand that school is far more interesting when lessons aren’t constantly disrupted by low-level insurgency. I expect this is why Katherine Birbalsingh has become something of a hate-figure with educators who put their politics before children’s education.

    • As you might imagine I am very supportive of what you say here and I don’t think your points here are incompatible with the points I made, if you’re willing to overlook unrealistic demands from the UN!

  2. Mrs Pigeon // 22 December 2016 at 21:34 // Reply

    Enjoyed. Thank you for the reminder on using words properly.

    I believe independent schools have very similar structures – stand alone schools still are inspected by OfSTED and others have trustees rather than governors.

    What I would really like to also put to rest is:
    a) The ‘Work Makes You Free’ comparison that people refer to if you suggest that four year olds might learnt to write more easily if they were sitting at a desk rather than on a carpet. Genuinely, I want to understand why the Nazis used that phrase (so that I could correct people when they make this link – because people make this link alot and it’s really disturbing).

    b) I’d also like to know why people are so afraid to sully the innocence of young children by asking them to do some work.

  3. Mrs Pigeon // 22 December 2016 at 22:06 // Reply

    I forgot something else – I really wanted to know what you thought was the difference between power and authority.

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