Zero Tolerance in the United Kingdom 2

In the late 1990s/early 2000s the language of zero tolerance started to appear in British education. We were told to have “zero tolerance for low-level behaviour”. I wrote a satire of the concept in the educational free-sheet, SecEd, debating whether the low level was, as it appeared to be, a spatial concept, and that teachers were to be intolerant of any movement a child made below the desk. It also looked at tolerance itself, to see whether it might have been somewhat unfairly maligned.

So, what then, is tolerance? Tolerance is an abstract noun. It means, among other things, “respect for the beliefs and ideas of other people.”[1] One might conclude from this definition that the zero-tolerance brigade have very little tolerance for the idea of tolerance itself. It also means “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.”[2] So, it is to allow the existence of other opinions or behaviour that you might not necessarily agree with. 

To have tolerance is to be possessed of a ‘theory of mind’: the psychological theory that, around the age of four, we acquire a realisation that others may have a different opinion to us and that that is OK. (You may infer what you will about the zero-tolerance brigade from the age at which one is said to develop a theory of mind.) 

As regards the behavioural element of this, recall it is “tolerating the existence of behaviour that you disagree with”. This is more difficult to argue against, but the key to any argument would be in the word “existence”. Can one tolerate the fact that something exists? As a teacher, I do not agree with or like Lionel going to pieces before the exams; I don’t think it’s good for him, but it happened. As a professional, I do not agree with or like Gary being rude to teachers; I don’t think it’s good for him, but he did it. As a practitioner, I do not agree with Kiron bunking off lessons; I don’t think it’s good for him, but the situation of his home-life being unremittingly awful, him being malnourished and maltreated is a situation that exists, and it has a significant impact on how he behaves.

All the time you routinely punish people for things that are caused by something, you are failing to seek out what that cause is. You are solving nothing. Zero tolerance is a position that is rooted in a lack of empathy, the complete lack of an affective imagination, a gaping hole in the place where human compassion should reside, and if you think a lack of empathy (where this is not impaired through no fault of any individual: there are some superb neurodiverse teachers who do superb jobs and add to the diversity of the profession) or a lack of compassion is a defensible position for an education system or an educational institution or an individual teacher, then I would politely suggest that you are wrong. There will be children in British schools, and lots of them, whose only role model for empathetic behaviour is found in the kind eyes of individual teachers, the profound love and care of the institution, the subtle positioning of the top professional. To base the management of the behaviour of these humans on a hard-edged denial of their needs is to act in an altogether too high-handed a manner and is a position based on an impairment of a key human quality.

It is contrarian by nature and, seemingly, proudly so. The mob can tend towards believing that the ‘truth’ has somehow been concealed from them by normal society and, as such, the mob is prone to believing in extremist views, and – make no mistake – zero tolerance is an extremist view. These flourish when the reality of normal human morality – civilian morality, if you will – is suspended, is made into irrelevance, when basic human decency is abolished. When there is a choice between the ambiguities of the real world and the certainty of the great lie, the mob chooses the lie.

Zero tolerance goes against all decent human instinct and is a direct refutation of Jeremy Bentham’s traditional(ist) maxim that has certainly passed the test of time totalitarians seem so keen on and which is foundational in law that “the punishment should fit the crime.” It seems to be another example of the possibly immature desire to ‘say the unsayable’; (it also bears a reasonably obvious relationship to the concept of Masslosigkeit, a lack of measure, and is a reason to point out Madeleine Albright’s claim that “the wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance).”[3]

Disagree with it and you will be subject to an accusation so tiresome that I can only be bothered to dignify it with comment as it is so easy to destroy. That accusation is based, yet again, on the form of perverse rhetorical logic, the wonky syllogism. The totalitarians’ wonky syllogism to discredit the idea of human love being important when educating children plays out like this:

  1. If progressives disagree with zero tolerance, and
  2. those who disagree with zero tolerance are permissive of bad behaviour; then,
  3. progressives are permissive of bad behaviour.

It is a position that’s dependent on a false premise. This is the petitio principii fallacy in naked operation. This is sophistry: a deliberately invalid but superficially convincing argument used in the hope of deceiving someone. But the sophistry deceives no one half intelligent, and it is all the more insulting for the fact it is so transparent. The second premise of the syllogism is manifestly false. Those who disagree with zero tolerance are not in any way permissive of bad behaviour, but we tend towards thinking that teachers should, rather than rely entirely on punitive structures, develop some skills and speak softly to the child.

The wonky syllogisms appear in Tom Bennett’s ‘Reading the Room’: Tom quotes a section from The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian in which Captain Jack Aubrey says, “Subordination is the natural order: there is subordination in heaven – Thrones and Dominions take precedence over Powers and Principalities, Archangels and ordinary foremast angels; and so it is in the navy. You have come to the wrong place for anarchy, brother.”[4]

This ridiculous antithesis implies that, without subordination, anarchy ensues. This is a position so binary that it couldn’t possibly be taken seriously by anyone with rounded experience of working as a teacher. The idea that freedom and security are somehow mutually exclusive is intellectually laughable. Furthermore, the use of metaphors from martial institutions speaks, again, of a militarisation of education for poor children that many readers will recognise. Metaphors are important. Kundera writes that they are “not be trifled with”[5] as a single metaphor can go as far as leading one to a lifelong love or its obverse.

Military language also appears in Michaela School’s transition week for new Year 7 students. Joe Kirby writes in ‘The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’ that “Bootcamp is a military metaphor [no shit, Sherlock] conjuring up images of militant discipline, arduous drills, meticulous order and harsh, intensive training.”[6] Yes, it rather does, doesn’t it? The question is whether military metaphors are at all appropriate for schools packed full of children, or if they reveal a slightly unthinking view of language which might map to a corresponding view of how to manage human behaviour. 

There is a reason for the strict discipline in the army: soldiers may eventually go to combat situations where the consequences are mortal, and strict hierarchies must be observed. Schools are not, one would think (on anything other than a metaphorical level), preparation for going into combat, and my suspicion is that this use of military language could be accompanied by a sense of intractable hierarchy that is not at all healthy for the children involved. The belief in the importance of an enforced hierarchy, while superficially tempting, is, at its deeper level, potentially dark. I refer back to the crisis at Uncommon: fetishise unthinking authority and abuses will surely follow. I know Joe to be a gentle human capable of great personal kindness, and I would imagine that he may have changed his opinion on things since 2016, but there are troubling whispers in his narration of the behaviours students exhibit when they arrive at Michaela: “some cry when asked to read aloud”.[7] In which case ...


[1] Milan Kundera, A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe (Faber & Faber: London 2023) p63.

[2] Al Mazoooqi, Maryam, Tolerance is a Reaction to a Disagreeing Action, Sail E-magazine, September 1019“the,even%20understanding%2C%20everyone%20else%27s%20perspective.

[3] Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning pix.

[4] Patrick O’Brian, The Ionian Mission quoted in Tom Bennett, Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour p12.

[5] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Faber & Faber: London 1985) p10.

[6] Joe Kirby, Bootcamp Breaks Bad Habits in Birbalsingh, Katharine (ed), Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way (John Catt: Woodbridge, 2016) p79.

[7] Joe Kirby, No-Excuses Discipline Changes Lives in Birbalsingh, Katharine (ed), Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way (John Catt: Woodbridge, 2016) p80.

Added Tue, 9 Jul 2024 10:13

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