Are some schools too strict?

This is a problem that I’ve been thinking about recently; perhaps some schools are too strict? Some schools are so worried about their pupils misbehaving that they institute draconian sanctions and create an atmosphere of fear amongst the students and staff. I’ve spoken to teachers and pupils who’ve attended these sorts of schools and been thinking about this issue quite a bit. Obviously, in the light of the summer riots and the government’s obsession with discipline, it’s a hot topic; David Cameron spoke this Friday about the need for discipline in our schools. As if most schools aren’t already well-disciplined already! The vast majority are orderly, well-run places. Some though can go overboard.

I appeared on BBC News this Friday talking with Sir Michael Wilshaw, the headteacher of Mossbourne Academy. He argued that many schools in the country are coasting and not doing a good enough job. A key policy he instituted at Mossbourne and the other school he temporarily was in charge of, Haggerston School, was a zero-tolerance behaviour policy; even minor infringements upon the rules, such as not having your top button undone, bring relatively severe punishments such as detentions. It worked at Mossbourne where the results are very good, but the results at Haggerston have remained stubbornly the same; the school has not improved in the way that others in the area have. Reflecting upon this makes me realise that improving schools is a very complex process and it’s not just having strict teachers which raises achievement. Indeed, there are times when an atmosphere of fear can inhibit children and stop them achieving their potential because they are so frightened of making mistakes. It’s a finely judged thing.

My son had to come with me to the studio and met Sir Michael in the Green Room. Unfortunately, he spilled some hot chocolate on his shirt. I joked that he’d get a detention at Mossbourne for something like that; Sir Michael confirmed that he would! Sir Michael lived up to his reputation as a bit of a scary guy…

About @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.
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4 Responses to Are some schools too strict?

  1. David Didau says:

    Hmmm. Can’t see much point in punishing children for making mistakes. How are they supposed to learn? Would be interested in whether Sir Mike has read Carol Dweck’s work and what his opinion is.

    I maintain discipline through mutual respect. Much less paperwork!

    • rippon says:

      The massive issue of appalling behaviour in schools (over which FG is now in denial, where he was frank and honest before, e.g. ‘Teacher Out Of Here’) has nothing to do with children “making mistakes”, e.g. ‘spilling hot chocolate’ (in FG’s gross distortion and trivialisation). It stems from pupils and parents having no respect (perhaps rightly) for the curriculum and agenda of schools.

      Moreover, if there *is* mutual respect, then you wouldn’t have to “maintain discipline” in the first place, because discipline is not an issue between people who have mutual respect.

      • I wrote “I’m A Teacher” about a school which I was at in the 1990s, when only 3 per cent of pupils got 5A-C grades at GCSE. Since I left it’s got much better! It now gets 100% because things have improved. Ofsted judges the behaviour to be good or better in 86% of schools. Things have improved, I changed my views after reviewing my own “improved” experiences both as a teacher and parent, and as a researcher. That said, it’s a very subjective area, with people have widely differing views on what is good and bad behaviour. It’s complex…

  2. rippon says:

    “As if most schools aren’t already well-disciplined already! The vast majority are orderly, well-run places.”

    – that’s the premise of this piece, but it’s completely wrong. Indeed, that it is completely wrong is exactly what you illustrated in your ‘Teacher Out Of Here’ (2004). It is mystifying why you have changed your tune so radically.

    Moreover, by your own words, you seem to explain very clearly why Wilshaw’s effect at Haggerston was minimal compared to his effect at Mossbourne: he was only at the former “temporarily”.

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