The Secret of Happiness and Virtue: behaviour and sanctions

” ‘And that’, put in the Director sententiously, ‘that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable [sic] social destiny.’ “ – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

” The Party denied the free will of the individual – and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives – and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one…

…’There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community…’ “ – Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

“We believe in mutual respect but students are aware that at times this is not always equal respect. Adults and professionals have to make decisions which benefit the whole school community. This approach reflects what happens in the world of work and society more generally. We do, however, respect students as learners at all times.” – Wesley Davies, Principal at Dixons McMillan, formerly Deputy headteacher at Dixons Trinity [A version of this quotation is a common utterance to the students, both as a year group and in individual conversations.]

“We don’t do anything revolutionary. We just do what we say we will do.” – Luke Sparkes, Principal at Dixons Trinity [A version of this quotation is a common utterance to staff and adults.]

“I am an expert in teaching maths and in knowing what will help you learn. If I say you need to put your pen down and listen to me, you need to do that immediately.” – Teacher speaking to a student on Friday, as part of a longer conversation about why she had a correction (30-minute same-day detention). [I concede that ‘I am an expert in teaching maths’ is a bold statement; I am confident that everyone in our department is more expert than a 12-year-old.]


This is another post where I try to describe, and explain the reasoning behind, some of the practices in my school. As with others like it, I’m mostly recording and sharing others’ ideas and work. I buy in to our systems/culture about as completely as is possible (so am happy to discuss it if you disagree with aspects) but deserve no credit if you think it is correct.


This post is prompted by four things:

– This post by Mary Meredith on restorative justice and why she believes that it can be inappropriate to sanction some unacceptable behaviours. I don’t know about when she does think sanctions are appropriate, but I hope she’ll write about this  in the future. I think she is completely misguided and that all parties’ long-term interests are being harmed by the approach she is proposing. I don’t doubt the purity of her intentions and do appreciate that she is sharing these stories.

– This post by Jonny Walker about how teachers get little or no training in what constitutes an effective telling off, despite reprimands and ‘corrective conversations’ being a normal part of adult-student relationships. I now feel this is the missing chapter in Teach Like a Champion. We benefit from getting to hear a lot of public reprimands, which allows us to mimic the tone and register until we (newer staff) develop our own ‘style’ that is consistent with the school culture. This is partially because it is modelled by senior and middle leaders (i.e. they try to pick up on everything and regularly address the whole body of students), and because there is an expectation of being sat in the back of others’ lessons as much as is practical.

– This post by Martin Robinson about his belief that extrinsic rewards have no place in a school. I agree with him wholeheartedly.

– A concern I sometimes hear, typically from less experienced teachers or visitors from very different school contexts (read: ones with behaviour that is not conducive to learning), that our school is producing automatons who don’t truly buy in to what they are doing. I don’t mention the lack of experience to erode the validity of their concerns; I’m trying to be faithful to the patterns of people’s reactions. I don’t agree with them; I don’t think our students are perfect – they are children, and have all the attendant foibles – but I think they have the peculiar confidence that comes with being in a safe, secure and academic environment. There are some drawbacks that we experience – such as more taddling than in other schools, and some overreacting to joshing and minor accidents (e.g. disproportionate responses to inane comments or accidental scrapes) – but it’s not impossible to address these within the systems that we have.

As I see it, our behaviour system is based on four strands.

1. Behaviour systems and ideals should be built around the most vulnerable children – these who will need it the most. It should protect students from harm (social, emotional, physical) and it should be designed so that it is possible for everyone to meet the expectations (some might need support to do this). In my view, a truly inclusive school doesn’t have different norms for students with individual needs, it has systems in place for everyone that already accommodate and facilitate diverse needs.

2. For routine behaviours, you should have routine rewards and sanctions. The bar should be very high.

3. For behaviours that require a student to really believe in what they’re doing, you need to tap into a deeper motivation.

4. Education is its own reward; increased knowledge and intelligence is inherently valuable.

1. Systems should be built around the most vulnerable

A lot of the rules and routines we have in place are not necessarily what students would choose if they designed the school themselves. For example, all students eat with their advisory (form group) in a prescribed seating plan, with a set menu (veggie or non-veggie is the extent of the choice they have) and are expected to engage in inclusive conversation. This routine – called Family Dining – exists in part because lunchtime is when many students can be especially vulnerable. This can range from cliques trying to exercise power by controlling who can sit with them and where:

you can't sit with us

to students not eating appropriate food for an afternoon of focus and effort, to students not eating at all, to the problem of younger students getting pushed to the back and missing most of lunch when lunch operates on a ‘queues and individual service’ system, to issues of schools not having incentives to insist on high quality of food if only the FSM pupils eat it, to FSM pupils having to declare themselves as such if they are the only ones who ever eat the school-provided food. It also prepares them for life beyond the academy when they (hopefully) will be eating in professional or academic settings, such as in halls or business meetings (perhaps due to the diversity of ethnic backgrounds, many aren’t comfortable using a knife and fork at the start of Y7 – this strikes me as an important thing to learn before they enter the world as adults). I could go on.

Another rule that can seem very restrictive to the outside observer (and some of the students) is the enforcement of silent corridors. Again, part of the rationale is those who might be more vulnerable. Our corridors are narrow; if two students are walking abreast and engaged in conversation, no one will be able to pass them; it is unreasonable to expect a small, young or shy child to assert themselves in that situation. Similarly, taller or larger students can unintentionally knock another student if they are distracted by conversation when walking in a narrow corridor. What can be a buzzing, energetic, lively shared space to one person – usually someone who is socially confident – can be a claustrophobic and intimidating space to someone else who is obliged to pass through it but would rather avoid it. On a practical note, it also wastes learning time and blurs the start of lessons if students are ‘dripping in’ due to having 5-minute chats between lessons.

2. Routine behaviours, routine sanctions

Dan Pink makes a strong case that there are two aspects to human motivation: for some desired behaviours, rewards increase compliance or productivity; for other desired behaviours, it depresses performance. This is an unexpected result, especially for students of economics. His work is summarised in this RSA animation:

He elaborates on this further in his book Drive, but I think the clip summarises the key ideas sufficiently that I wouldn’t recommend you prioritise it over other edu-ish-publications.

Some of the behaviour we expect in school is routine: be on time to school and lessons, bring the necessary equipment for lessons, follow instructions (e.g. to look at the speaker, open your book, sit where instructed, start on tasks promptly), abide by the uniform code, meet deadlines (e.g. homework), don’t answer back (e.g. if you think an adult has made a mistake, wait until an appropriate time to speak to them). For a routine behaviour that is not cognitively challenging, the evidence suggests that routine sanctions and rewards are effective. We have a system of same-day 30-minute detentions (called corrections, as they are intended to correct students’ behaviour) which are recorded centrally and staff have a rota for supervising. Students write out the learning habits and then write out how they will make changes in future. It is not perfect, of course: it does not eliminate every transgression, as a staff body we will always have to work to be more consistent in our applications of sanctions, and a very small number of students receive a disproportionate number of corrections. I don’t think this indicates system failure; it suggests that we need to work hard to ensure it brings the benefits we intend. Efforts with practice in CPD (see this post), and leadership from Heads of Year and senior leaders, work to reduce inconsistency. Intervention, monitoring and escalation are used to address the risk of some students becoming ‘immune’ to corrections.

There are rewards for students who consistently meet expectations, but it is very hard to get these. There are 3 ‘reward events’ per year; these are educational and enriching (e.g making a film in the Bradford Media Museum, or a day of painting and biology in The Deep in Hull) and students must have 100% attendance and 0 corrections in the preceding 3 months to be eligible. Amazingly, almost half of students qualify each time (I say amazingly as it is a high standard to meet).

Our catchment is very normal. We have (slightly) above average SEN on entry, (slightly) below average attainment on entry and the majority of students are from the five poorest wards in Bradford (one of the poorest cities in Britain). This good behaviour is not because we have ‘better’ students. Ours are wonderfully normal, funny, earnest, silly, cynical – everything you expect in a city centre school.

3. Tapping into deeper motivation

There are many ways that we work to help students to be intrinsically motivated to be courteous, hard-working and driven by a desire to serve a purpose greater than themselves. Whenever possible, corrections are always accompanied by a rationalising conversation that links back to our school’s values (these are referred to incessantly) and how it relates to the student’s sentence (see this post here by Joe Kirby). The ninja-level teachers often have students thanking them (!) for giving them a correction as it sets them on the straight and narrow. At first an external viewer might have a creeping sense of NewSpeak (hence my references to Huxley and Koestler above), but I am not aware of a student complaining that they felt they weren’t allowed to disagree, or that an apology or concession was extracted from them just to ‘get it over with.’

This links back to working around the most vulnerable students. For a student with ASD or RAD (reactive attachment disorder), they need an explicit conversation about why they have done something wrong and how they can improve. Rather than be ‘inclusive’ by accommodating that need separately, we strive to be truly inclusive by doing it for all students as a matter of course (see this post by our INCO for an amusing and thought-provoking treatise on this). Of course we’re not perfect at it; staff can be busy or stressed, as all teachers are, but we’re working towards consistency in the frequency and content of reprimands and explanations.

At least once a day, staff speak to the student body about how behaviours, norms, routines or expectations link to our values (hard work, trust and fairness) and drivers (mastery, autonomy and purpose). This is reinforced every time we praise or reprimand students, so it is a consistent thread through their day. The staff are willing to be earnest and open-hearted in their belief in the values – no mean feat! – and we work hard to help the students believe in them and live by them to guide their choices. Of course some students might work hard because they don’t want a sanction, particularly younger ones, but we’re getting closer to the main motivation for hard work being a desire for mastery and to be fair to their peers.

4. Education is its own reward

Finally, I suspect the behaviour system also relies on the staff really loving their subjects and conveying that enthusiasm to the students. Staff can convey this however they like, and pretty much teach as they please (lessons should be tailored to the class being taught, have explicit progress – this does not mean new material every lesson or racing through content – and effective formative assessment that allows the teacher to be adaptive).

If students are working hard in lessons, teachers are teaching well and learning is constantly celebrated as inherently wonderful and valuable then the intrinsic pleasure, and increased self-esteem, that accompanies tough learning should be rewarding in its own right. A desire to be a part of that should, hopefully, be the main thing that motivates students to work hard, be nice and become autonomous.


Some people might never be able to get on board with this. Our school might not be for everyone, although I have never been fully satisfied by arguments for less clear boundaries or lower expectations. The school would be my first choice if I had children and I would give anything to be able to offer this environment to the staff and students of any school.


Filed under Interesting or Fun

8 responses to “The Secret of Happiness and Virtue: behaviour and sanctions

  1. Another smashing post Dani, thank you. On the question of the ‘missing technique’ in TLAC, the course I attended in May had a section on what Doug called the ‘Art of the Consequence.’ I presume this is going into the second edition when it comes out, but it was full of useful advice about how to structure a consequence to ensure it is firm and positive. I’ll write it up if I can make the time…

    • That would be amazing, I really hope that it does make it in:) It’s hard to know the right line to take, and in what circumstances. In particular, where the balance is when saying things like ‘It makes me feel sad when you shrug/sigh/speak if I’m speaking’ versus discussing fairness to others, etc etc.

  2. This is a confident account of how well your school is doing. A little self doubt can create healthy reflection but perhaps the awareness of Ofsted and parental scrutiny drives this underground.

    There is a danger that compliance is mistaken for self regulated behaviour. What happens when the teacher goes out of the room? My sense in reading your post is that the convenience of the institution is mistaken for its purpose in nurturing autonomous individuals. Silence on the corridors is coercive not empowering. Family dining is an ideal but the reality can be highly stressful. No strategy is perfect.

    I would by the way suggest that people do read Daniel Pink’s Drive, after all it is the mature adult that education seeks to create. Who are we when the group think and institutional props are stripped away? I wonder what your pupils and parents think about how well they are being prepared for later life.

    • Thank you for your comment. I regret if the blog seems overly-confident; we constantly discuss and review and reflect on the effectiveness of the system we have. The biggest doubters are the staff (whilst also being the biggest supporters). All feedback from ‘moderators’ (e.g. Bradford Partnership, ParentView, Ofsted) has been very positive, with those groups believing the behaviour system is creating confident students who do behave because they believe in it.

      We are acutely aware of the problem that compliance can cause; it’s not good behaviour if it doesn’t happen without adults (i.e. we need to create opportunities for them to choose to do the right (or wrong) thing, and not just have overly-tight structures). We’re very mindful of that, and the intention is that there is a loosening over time as the students are more mature and have a good understanding of the benefits of a calm, orderly (and joyful) learning environment.

      I agree with the sentiment of your commentary, although perhaps disagree with assuming that we aren’t very mindful of these things and already trying to examine and address them!

  3. Thank you for publishing this blog Dani, it is an open and honest account of your school’s policy and strategies, and very welcome. To my mind there is no perfect way to run a school and as teachers we are always in the process of looking for ways to improve and make education more meaningful and effective for our students. Your openness to reflection and discussion is a testament to your professionalism.

    Personally I have some doubts about your school’s approach. To write about them in detail would take me too long, however, I think they are well summarised by this extract from Biesta (The Beautiful Risk of Education):

    “There is a risk [in education]. To engage with the openness and unpredictability of education, to be orientated toward an event that may or may not happen, to take communication seriously, to acknowledge that the power of the teacher is structurally limited, to see that emancipation and democracy cannot be produced in a machinelike manner…

    …It is conceivable that at some point in the future through a huge effort we may be able to take all unpredictability out of education… but without the risk education itself disappears and social reproduction, insertion into existing orders of being, doing, and thinking, takes over.

    While this may be desirable if our orientation is toward the reproduction of what already exists, it is not desirable if we are genuinely interested in education as a process that has an interest in the coming into the world of free subjects, not in the production of docile objects.”

    My fear is your school’s system is out of balance and orientated too far towards qualification and socialisation as the purpose of education and does not take into sufficient account the agency of your students and the importance of education as process of becoming subjects in their own right. If we do not have the freedom to practice responsibility, how are we to become responsible and wise?

    • I suspect our viewpoints on the purpose of education are so vastly different that it may be impossible to respond to what you wrote in the spirit that you pictured. My own belief – for now – is that the main purpose of our school is to academically educate the children and promote a diverse and inclusive culture. Hence I’m not sure I can satisfy your questions/points very well.

      We value autonomy highly in the school (as mentioned in the post). It’s one of the three drivers (in an organisation where that matters and isn’t just an add on). However, I believe autonomy can only be exercised when you are master of yourself and in an environment that allows you to act on your will (as opposed to your whims). We’re trying to create two things: embedded routines and habits that allow the students to develop strong self-discipline that they can draw on when they need it in their various ventures (now and in the future) and a safe, caring and values-driven environment that allows them to take academic, emotional and social risks and fully supports their academic development. The evidence before my eyes suggest that the children are happy, well-socialised, love learning and have a strong sense of moral purpose (the post I put up today is an example of this, but I could recount many).

      I think freedom is about having the capacity to fulfil your goals, and having a joyful sense of obligation to your community (so as to live a purposeful and fulfilling life). Our school doesn’t have an unequal adult-child relationship because we see that as inherently valuable, we have it in order to equip them better to live in (and change) a society that isn’t yet satisfactory.

  4. Pingback: Superstructures: SEN-D and whole school behaviour management systems | inco14

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