This is a thought piece about a simple word in education, a word I take issue with… obedience.

This may be click bait… but I am not out to tie a burning straw man to a pole on this one. It is an important topic. In fact right now the concept of obedience is one of the most important topics out there.

I do not want every child to be obedient. In fact I would question what kind of society we would have if obedience reigned supreme? Let’s all obey Trump – no questions asked, in fact lets imagine he is never opposed? This is a pretty dangerous road to travel but I think it has much to explore.

I do believe that every child needs to understand the commitment and sacrifice that education demands. I do believe in respect and the rule of law. I believe that teachers should be able to teach and students should be able to learn. I have no issue with detentions… if the place in which we work or play is clear about the rules and they are easy to understand and fair I feel that this is a great grounding in life. I also believe that rules should be questioned, always, and broken sometimes and we go through life trying to work out which rules they are. I only need to reference the suffragettes or the human rights movement to prove my point. I think you can still function in a law abiding society without blind obedience to some form of authority – though I am not naive enough to think it is easy.

I also believe that life is something that happens as we deal with our mistakes. Therefore, consequences are one of life’s great lessons but obedience is a choice we make in response to a direct order from another individual (sometimes representing a higher order). That person in usually in authority and tells you to do something and you do it. So, obedience involves hierarchy and power. I have never personally witnessed a teacher who has lost control or power over behaviour. I have seen the barriers they have to over come but in my experience schools have always had the strongest hand and continue to do so. I believe that teachers have something much stronger than a right for a compliance to obedience. They develop respect and moral authority. This can be abused but in most cases, in the schools I have worked in, it never is.

I have an issue with the way obedience can used to get children to be compliant.

When I worked in Tower Hamlets (more than 15 years ago) a child protection discloser came in. Four very nervous children disclosed to a Learning Mentor that they had been beaten the night before, at a evening Koran reading class. As deputy I spoke to one boy who was said to have got the worst of it. I knew him well, he was in my class for a second year. He had very severe eczema. The children had told us how they were beaten in certain places. K had been beaten on his feet, and when I spoke to him his shoes were damp with blood. He slowly and painfully took off his socks at my request. His eczema inflamed and bleeding. He could hardly walk and yet he did, even though the pain was terrible. He was 10 years old.

By the end of the day twenty two boys had come forward to say they had received beatings and humiliations from a ‘pop up’ reading school on the local estate. Some only once but a few were constantly hurt. One child had keys held against his face whilst the so-called teacher karate kicked them and another had to crouch in the corner of the room with a broom handle slid over his neck and between his elbows… He would often have pig or cow written in chalk across his shaved head. He had special educational needs and was a complex boy. One of my proudest teaching feats was supporting him to get a solid level 3 in writing in two years from a level 1 in Y5. It was about investing time and effort. A lot of time and effort. He may never set the world alight with a Booker prize for writing but I do not regret a single moment.

When I talked to the boys I asked them what caused the violence towards them. 

“Getting things wrong…”

“When we are naughty…”

I was struck by, “When we are naughty…” Why be naughty when you know how severe the punishment will be? Why does this not stop certain children from doing something that will result is such extreme punishment? Why is it that children would choose to misbehave when the consequences are so severe? Why is it that others only got punished once? Why did they not learn after one misdemeanour? If misbehaving is a choice children make… why make it? If children would play class clown or throw a paper ball when the consequence is a beating to your fragile feet… what deterrent could any state school offer in the modern era? 

Maybe a personal motivation to learn would be more powerful?  That takes real effort and time though. Something I am not pretending I have all the answers to. We know that some children will forever push at the boundaries of the rules and some will just simply step over them. The concept of obedience to even basic rules do not seem to work for some, in the same way they do for the majority. In fact why have the word obedience in a school setting when the vast majority are totally able to function within the rule system they are in? They do not need to be told to obey the rules because they understand how society is set up and their place within it. The others would very likely learn little from detentions – they may learn other stuff though. They will most likely be repeat offenders until we slowly watch them drop out of of education. They are the type that brazenly and easily ignore the rules, burn their bridges and defy authority… for some the idea of obedience is like a bull to a red rag. We could just give up on them I suppose; I tried but they wouldn’t conform… or we could try to see if there is a different way to get them to work within the system. Can we make a success of this person despite the odds? This is a question I keep asking whenever I deal with behaviour. I know a big part of the answer is in the development of a sense of worth in individuals. A sense of direction and having a more certain future. I am not sure that schools are the best place to do this – not in the current climate.