Zero Tolerance in the United Kingdom

“Men and women rarely admit their fear of freedom openly, however, tending rather to camouflage it – sometimes unconsciously – by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom.”[1] Paulo Freire

“Provocateurs, oppressors, all those who in some way injure others are guilty, not only of the evil they commit, but also of the perversion into which they lead the spirit of the offended.”[2] Primo Levi

Ted Wragg used to say that every school thinks it has a real and significant behaviour problem; few of them do. To give you an anecdotal insight into this, I spent two summers about a decade ago as the guest of an elite private school in Sydney, Knox Grammar. There, I formed a life-long friendship with Glenn McLachlan who’d earned his stripes in some of London’s tougher schools. In the second summer, my role was to teach English and to observe and support other teachers. Knox Grammar is a rarefied environment and even the briefest look at their alumni will reveal that, whilst it is not quite at the level of an Australian Eton, there are rather more Justices of the High Court and Olympic athletes that you would be likely to find had attended your local comp. The young men I taught there were delightful. Early on in the stay, caught somewhat short and in a state of very urgent need, I asked the head boy where the nearest staff toilets were. “You can go in the boys, Sir. You’re one of us now.” There was not a moment in that six weeks that any young man was in any way not completely lovely to me. 

Some of the staff thought the boys’ behaviour was completely out of control!

The idea of a behaviour crisis seems to have at least partially originated from the pen of Andrew Old, whose influential blog, ‘Scenes from the Battleground: Teaching in British Schools’[3]  reached well over two million views. His view of his experiences of teaching might be ascertained from the title of the blog.

The first ever post goes back to October 2006. Its title is ‘The Corridor of Death’. It contains a harrowing story of an assault that caused him to leave a school and of how SMT not patrolling corridors can affect teacher safety in challenging schools. I recognise the truth in it. The second post is entitled ‘Modern Education is Rubbish Part 1: Where are we Now?’ in which he argues that “for many teachers what we see in schools is pupils that haven’t learnt, won’t learn and won’t behave,”[4] and we learn of his view that, in the 2000’s we were teaching “a generation of uncooperative sociopaths.”[5]The third post is ‘The Top Five Lies About Behaviour’. His view is well expressed, contains some truth, but is so thoroughly jaundiced as to make one almost worry for him. In the first paragraph he claims – and I have never found any reason to think Andrew to be a dishonest voice: he is a man possessed of a deep integrity  – “a friend of mine worked with refugees and discovered that more than one family left Britain to face persecution and possible torture in their homeland rather than put their children through the British education system.”[6] He refers to the “current anarchy.”[7] This is a belief shared by the Conservative government’s behaviour advisor who has written a section in his ‘Running the Room’ book examining “why we’re in such a mess with behaviour in schools.”[8] People believed Andrew’s position as it rang true(ish). If it was in any way a forgery, a fabrication of historical fact, then that was less important than people’s recognition of it as being true. 

I could go on, and Andrew has done so for a further seventeen years: that’s a whole lot of blogging and a lot of being cross about things. I also do not want to enter the door marked denialism. We’ve probably all been subject to behaviours that beggar belief; I’ve worked for extended periods, between three months and seven years, in eighteen different schools, some of which were very tough indeed: Canning Town, Lewisham, Croydon, Lambeth. But Andrew’s is a specific view. He is an intelligent man, but there is little positivity about the experience of being a teacher expressed in the blog. Indeed, much of the time it appears to have been written by a walking, typing embodiment of resentment. Often, there seems little belief in human goodness amongst traditionalist voices. 

There is also the fact that they are two versions of reality and that reality itself can tend towards the paradoxical. There is the factual variety: “That thing in the cupboard is an egg.” And then there is the constructed version. Andrew’s view of what was really going on in our schools was, and is, a constructed reality just as much as the reality in the piece you are currently reading has been constructed by its author. The thing about constructed realities is that they can be partially or even completely wrong. I accept that there are readers of this who will regard it as being completely wrong, but I am not sure the two voices above have such a capacity, and this may go some way to explaining their certainty. I also suffer from a sense of my own ‘rightness’ and apologise for making you suffer it also but am alive to Yeats’ view in ‘The Second Coming’ that “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”[10] I have tried to be uncertain when examining current pedagogic relaities, but the process of writing it, and I’m saddened by this, has made me less so.

At the time of the beginning of the blog, Andrew was sharing the negative experiences he’d had in two schools, and, with all due respect, I’d conclude that to extrapolate a national crisis on such a basis seems a statistically odd conclusion for a maths teacher to have reached. Yes, teenagers can behave very poorly; yes, there have been, and no doubt still are, schools that, at times, feel like insane asylums; and yes, sometimes some support and some systems and some SMT members can be less helpful than they might be. But this is not a complete national picture. Some schools are lovely places; many schools in challenging areas are very well run; most teachers are able to locate some good in pretty well every child. To use one teacher’s experience of two schools as evidence of a national crisis is a less than balanced or ‘evidence-led’ view.

Andrew has also been at points subject, I feel, to a certain lack of empathy for senior managers, who, along with the children themselves and their parents seem to be to blame for most things. If you’ve never had a senior management role (and I haven’t either), it is unlikely you’ll have a rounded understanding of the pressures involved, and this blame shifting to the top, to the “other”, to the “not me” often takes place in schools where there are behaviour problems. It’s an easy but unhelpful trap to fall into as it doesn’t solve anything, and it’s really bad for the students for teachers to inhabit such positions: “What can you do with kids like this?” “Quite a lot actually.” This issue where either the SMT leave all behaviour issues to teachers, or where teachers expect SMT to magically solve everything is just blame shifting. My feeling is that Andrew, historically at least, may have been guilty of a certain amount of this.

In a particularly tough school in Croydon, in which I was part of a team that ‘turned it around’ after it had been what might euphemistically be described as ‘struggling’ for thirty-five years, the then executive head, John Murphy,[11] who has had a huge impact on any philosophy I may have regarding the treatment of children and with whom I co-wrote the perhaps unfairly neglected behaviour management book, ‘Why Are You Shouting at Us?’ was often found in our earliest moments at the school, which were occasionally harrowing, making the following statement: “Don’t blame the kids for being who they are.”

It is a useful and powerful maxim. Blaming people for being who they are helps no one, not the students, not the teachers, not the support staff, not the management. There is also the fact that, if you think negatively of someone, I imagine, it might be easier to seek complete control over them. Blaming the students for, ultimately, what has been done to them is unhelpful to the point of being slightly inhumane, and serves no more purpose than blaming SMT.

The views Andrew expressed became increasingly influential. He is a trenchant commentator who was writing his own, possibly mildly solipsistic, narrative version of constructed reality.[12] Narrative is the means through which we organise our memory of our experiences and, so Bruner argues, this includes “stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing.”[13] A narrative constructed reality is a version of reality; it is not reality itself. Narrative constructions of reality are also affected by the intentional state entailment of the person recalling the events: things that happen to us and our recall of them are affected by our beliefs, by our theories and our values.[14] The ‘truth’ of a narrative is generally judged more by verisimilitude than by its verifiability and, as in all narratives, they may be as much a creation of reality as they are a representation.

Nevertheless, Andrew sometimes succeeded in either reflecting the views of many people or even changing them to his own. If you were having a torrid time teaching in a tough school, then engaging with a semi-public voice that shares similar experiences to those you’re undergoing might be comforting (though it may also make you feel angry at the injustice you feel you are suffering). But there is an argument that, despite Andrew’s intelligence and integrity, his views are populist by nature, and populism exists to win over mass opinion, to create a majority view. 

What the blog allowed for was for the struggling teacher to forgive themselves their struggles. If you are getting run ragged by classes, it’s not because your skill level is not sufficient; it’s not because you’re possibly just not cut out for it at this particular school; it’s not because you need more and better training. It’s someone else’s fault. Now, it may be that the central truth of Andrew’s argument is strong, but it might also be that, in some cases, it actually is the teacher’s fault or at least the fault of a system that has not ensured that the teacher is competent at managing behaviour, and this blame shifting will result not in better training for the teacher or better systems but in blaming the children for being who they are.

Andrew, in calling out sacred cows, is sometimes guilty of missing the obvious in his pushing of an ideological position.[15] One of the first things he called out was the idea that if you plan a great lesson, then behaviour will improve. Andrew finds this to be damaging nonsense that allows SMT to continue to ignore behaviour in dysfunctional institutions. Tom Bennett also regards it as such “feel good nonsense.”[16] I think, in the main, it’s probably nearer truth than falsehood. Students will generally behave well for teachers they respect. Why would a student have reason to respect a teacher? Probably because they are good at what they do for a living, express care well and regularly, and display empathy easily. While they’re not a panacea, good lessons will generally result in better behaviour than bad lessons, and a string of great lessons is rarely going to find a committed amount of resistance from students. This is a relatively simple understanding.

What Andrew’s view does knit closely to, and quite worryingly so, is one of the defining early stages of any push towards authoritarianism: identifying the big danger, the thing that all of us, the ones with common sense, most fear. Within all marches towards versions of authoritarianism, the ‘alleged current terror’ must be first identified and then “stabilized.”[17] This is arguably the sub-textual political line of the blog: to identify the current terror and then outline some form of solution. In teaching, the biggest fear we all have is that of not being able to manage student behaviour. It frightens us. Many of us have the dream at the beginning of September every year that we’ve forgotten how to teach and cannot control the class. It is that primal that it seeps into our subconscious. Andrew identified that fear and proposed that the way we might get rid of it is more draconian control over students. This is a standard technique of rising authoritarianism: playing to people’s fears in order to invite or initiate control. In order that control might be re-established over a society, a group of people who are weaker than us, in this case, the students, must be made into vessels who are less than worthy of compassion. 

But how do we manage to convince ourselves of the need for greater control over a set of people who are weaker than us? By pretending we are the weak ones, the ones under threat. We turn a fragile group into a ‘threat’, “make ourselves even more fragile, and pit the two fragilities against each other.”[18] And how often and for how long does that threat exist? Always. We are always under potential assault from the other, from the thing that must be controlled.

Andrew’s blog came to the attention of Michael Gove, and he referenced it and the work of Tom Bennett, whom he described as “brilliant” and a “free thinker”[19] in his superbly argued speech launched at the Conservative think-tank that he, himself, had helped set up, Policy Exchange. (He also had the audacity to mention his “enormous respect” for the work of Charles Murray).[20]

The idea that there is a behaviour crisis in schools was therefore either allowed or encouraged to take hold, perhaps as recognition of there being a degree of truth in it, perhaps as it gave a sharper, keener edge to the razor of Gove’s reformer’s zeal. The solution to the ‘behaviour crisis’ came in the form of ever more stringent systems and the emergence of ‘zero-tolerance’ and ‘no excuses’ behaviour management strategies. 


[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin: London 1996 [1970]) p.18

[2] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Abacus: London 1989) p91.

[3] This is now defunct as Andrew has moved to Substack: Andrew Old's Education Battleground.

[4] Andrew Old (@OldAndrew), ‘Modern Education is Rubbish Part 1: Where are we Now?’, ‘Scenes from the Battleground: Teaching in British Schools’ (October 2006).

[5] Andrew Old (@OldAndrew), ‘Modern Education is Rubbish Part 1: Where are we Now?’, ‘Scenes from the Battleground: Teaching in British Schools’ (October 2006).

[6]Andrew Old (@OldAndrew), ‘The Five Key Lies About Behaviour’, ‘Scenes from the Battleground: Teaching in British Schools’ (October 2006).

[7] Andrew Old (@OldAndrew), ‘The Five Key Lies About Behaviour’, ‘Scenes from the Battleground: Teaching in British Schools’ (October 2006).

[8] Tom Bennett, Running the Room: The Teachers’ Guide to Behaviour (John Catt, Woodbridge 2020) p90.

[9] Tom Bennett, Running the Room: The Teachers’ Guide to Behaviour (John Catt, Woodbridge 2020) p54.

[10] W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming

[11] John went on to be the CEO of Oasis Academies but has now left the building. You can put together an argument that he has done more good for working-class children than almost anyone in British education.

[12] The idea of constructed reality comes from Vygotsky. Of interest here is that Jerome Bruner, in writing about narrative constructions of reality has argued that falsehoods are an intrinsic part of such a reality in that sometimes the wider story must be upheld at whatever cost and, if this involves a slight twisting of the truth, well, so be it.

[13] Jerome Bruner (1991), The Narrative Construction of Reality, Critical Enquiry 18, no.1 p4.

[14] Jerome Bruner (1991), The Narrative Construction of Reality, Critical Enquiry 18, no.1 p7.

[15] I’m not arguing here that my own position is free from ideological influence. Far from it.

[16] Tom Bennett, The Running the Room Companion: Issues in Classroom Management and Strategies to Deal with them. (John Catt: Woodbridge, 2021) p62. Here, he is presenting himself in a certain way. It is very much about the presentations of self rather than an engagement with the truth. Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press: Princeton 2005) pp18-19.

[17] Hannah Arendt, Imperialism, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Random House UK: London 1966) p8.

[18] Michela Murgia, How to be a Fascist: A Manual (Pushkin Press: London, 2018) p40.

[19] Michael Gove Speaks About the Importance of Teaching, Speech at Policy Exchange (5 September 2013) Available at He also described future Conservative Party candidate, now the head of education at the Centre for Policy Studies, who, at one point, had run the ‘none more doxic’ organisation called ‘The Campaign for Common Sense’, Mark Lehain, as an “inspirational classroom practitioner”. In June 2023, The Centre for Policy Studies, ran a Margaret Thatcher Conference.

[20] He also makes positive reference to Pimlico Academy, where eight years later, the head teacher would step down under claims of racial discrimination and protests against such from the student body. Nazia Parveen, Pimlico Academy Head Resigns After Race Discrimination Row, The Guardian (18 May 2021), Available at

Added Mon, 8 Jul 2024 10:54

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