Getting the balance right with discipline

How far can you go with non-punitive discipline?


Image result for scales


Much has been made about Michaela School’s advertisement for a Director of Detention and the necessity for clarity of discipline in schools in order to create safe spaces in which children can learn and flourish. So far, so actually not very controversial.

For the last few years, I have been trying to develop a closed community within my independent boarding house in which we try to avoid punishments altogether. While this clearly seems somewhat blithe and utopian, it is founded on extremely high expectations of the boys (it is an all-boys house), a clear sense of the shared values of the community and a commitment to restorative practices and mediation when things go wrong. So, lots of conversations rather than knee-jerk reactions or black-and-white adherence to a set of punishments.

Attempting to live this vision has thrown up some interesting questions about behaviour, relationships, fairness and effectiveness.

Consider this metaphor: if we see any given community as a pair of scales which needs to be kept in equilibrium to function at its best, any act which upsets the balance requires some form of redress (or restoration) in order to restore harmony. This could be anything from an unkind word to a broken window, or more serious acts of violence, misbehaviour or bullying. Traditionally, the perpetrator would suffer some punishment according to a school discipline policy, which would be seen as righting the wrong and restoring a level playing field. However, I would contend that this is often not the result which is achieved – whilst there may be the veneer of justice, the community will only have its equilibrium restored if anyone affected by the event feels they have been listened to, and understood. Also, there is the definite possibility that the perpetrator feels harshly treated and so whilst they may be forced into compliance, the community does not necessarily achieve balance – we have just overweighted the other side of the scale. They can, if we are not careful, develop resentment towards the person giving the punishment and also the initial victim who can be seen as having got them into this position. At best, we may achieve balance, but the scales will be weighted more heavily – the atmosphere becomes more tentative and suspicious. It is what Maria Arpa dubs an ‘Or else’ culture (

On the other hand, if we remove the threat of a punitive measure and focus on developing the understanding of the wrongdoer, I believe we stand more chance of sowing the seeds of empathy and open-mindedness; community-spirit over self-interest.

This requires a fundamental paradigm-shift; everyone in the community must recognise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that maintaining a calm, peaceful balance is in everyone’s best interests, rather than seeking payback or retribution. The act of forgiveness must also play a central part. We must achieve balance by taking weights off, not adding them on. This is counter-intuitive and counter-instinctive (especially in young boys, for whom the innate sense of justice is powerful), and so requires time, effort and communication on the part of the community leaders. Nonetheless, it is a system which, once it takes hold, will be valued and fostered by those within it.

Surely there are limits to this?

Well, yes. There are clearly actions which could be considered beyond the pale, and for which a definite, agreed and serious disciplinary response is required. Violent crimes and repeated crimes which contravene the values of the community in ways which are impossible to repair may need the perpetrator removed from the community either temporarily or for good (although reintegration should always be the primary aim, if balance can be appropriately restored). This is why we have prisons, secure hospitals, and in schools, the reserved right to exclude individuals, as well as detention centres, isolation rooms, and so on.

These measures must be seen as the outer limits of what is acceptable (think the electric fence at the edge of a wide space), and teachers and community leaders must do all in their power to avoid jumping to discipline too early, or using these as deterrents which hang over the heads of the pupils – again, creating a culture of apprehension and fear, rather than one in which everyone strives to do the right thing, for the right reasons.

All schools, and boarding schools especially – given the proximity of the pupils to one another for extended periods of time, often sharing rooms – are places in which young people learn about their own, and other people’s boundaries. The recognition that people see, and feel the world differently should be central to what we teach every day. Dr Simon Walker’s work on what he calls Human Ecology ( explores this in detail and can give young people a language by which to understand the implications of treading too heavily on other people’s metaphorical landscapes. If we can make our business of education about understanding human interaction more sensitively, we may stand a far better chance of not only allowing individuals the safety and freedom to learn well, but of empowering a more tolerant, respectful and sensitive generation.


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