I didn’t enjoy school. I found it a stressful, threatening environment. Every weekday morning, I woke to a lurch in my stomach. I only came into my own during the sixth-form, but even so, a memory comes to mind of my year 13 Theatre Studies practical exam. I got an A in the subject and went on to study Drama at university, so I was alright at it. My deputy head came over to speak to me after the performances and said, ‘Well done Charlotte! I didn’t know you could act.’ Of course she didn’t know! I don’t think she’d known my name until she looked at the performance programme that day. I had been an anonymous student in that school. I’d sat for silent hours in lessons, moved about the school not making a name for myself. I wasn’t naughty, more a silent anarchist: refusing to sing hymns because I wasn’t religious, wearing my uniform slightly weirdly to slightly undermine the rules. I never really raised my head above the parapet. As a result, I never really found my voice there. I never really felt as though I belonged in that institution. Leaving school at eighteen was a huge relief, though not a complete liberation from the compliant person I had been trained to be within those walls.
As a teacher, I used to tell my students that I’d hated school. This naturally led to the question, ‘So, why are you a teacher then?’ Firstly, I love teaching, but also, I think there was a part of me that wanted to create a different experience for those anonymous students, those who feel squashed by the beast of an institution that is secondary school. And now, as a parent I really want to ensure my children don’t leave their schooling feeling as I did. I’d like them to feel confident in their personalities and their potential; to not just have been another bit of silent data that walked those corridors. But I fear this could be exactly what they, and many others, will become if current regressive behaviour policies continue to flourish.
On the 21st July, Rescue Our Schools shared an article on Facebook about silent corridors in an East London school (Pupils banned from talking while walking between lessons under headteacher’s silence policy). This has been a bugbear of mine for a while as my two closest secondary schools have this silent transition policy in place. Children are to move around the school in silence. In the shared article, the headteacher praises the ‘academic atmosphere’ she has created. In 2016, Katharine Birbalsingh, head of the ‘strictest’ school in England, said it’s in the corridors where the bad behaviour begins, so if they walk in single-file around the school, you prevent the fights and the bullying.
A friend of mine argued that instances of bullying had been minimal in one of my local silent secondary schools. This sounds great, but I question the long-term impact of this. If behaviour, and therefore, bullying, is controlled through silent compliance, teachers will no longer see or hear those actions or words in the school corridors which could reveal signs of bullying, and lead to interventions to support the victim and assist the perpetrator in managing the causes of their behaviour. I would argue that silent corridors do not stop bullying – especially against the force of social media – but they certainly can hide it. In silence, perpetrators are protected, victims invisible. Those corridors become compliant in this and stunt social and emotional development during key formative years.
I’m not recommending mayhem throughout these transitions, but I would argue that silent corridors are all about compliance. My eight-year old son recently informed me that he was a ‘watcher’. I immediately envisaged the Eyes from The Handmaid’s Tale. If he sees someone talking as his class moves along the head teacher’s corridor, he is to report them to his teacher. Consider those embarrassing moments at school – your skirt caught in your knickers after a lunchtime trip to the toilet. In my child’s school, they are not allowed to tell you without fear of punishment. Your water bottle is leaking and forming a potential health and safety risk outside the head teacher’s office. Your friend won’t tell you to reposition it for fear of losing precious breaktime minutes. Any desire to help will be quelled by fear and self-preservation. I questioned this at the school office and was informed this was not a school policy – in fact a teacher present was horrified that they’d be seen to encourage ‘snitching’. However, it seems that the year 3 teachers, clearly a compliant bunch themselves, had devised this ‘policy’ as other members of my son’s year were also calling themselves ‘watchers’. I am awaiting comment from the head teacher.
A deputy head at one of my local silent secondary schools enlightened me regarding their premise for implementing silent corridors. I questioned its social impact, with what I thought a neat analogy. When I first met my childminder, I produced my list of Ofsted-inspired questions and with horror in my eyes, highlighted her lack of stair gate. She informed me she teaches them to climb the stairs. My horror, diluted by the maverick suggestion that enabling the child to master the task helps them accomplish the task time and time again, turned to wonder. Isn’t this the same with schooling, guiding students to interact positively within their community? My smart analogy was met with the statement, ‘We teach the students that it’s institution over individual.’ Do you? His wording is sinister. It’s Orwellian. What are these children being prepared for with such a precept at the heart of their schooling?
The World Economic Forum, stated that the top ten skills needed for the workforce of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ include complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making, service orientation, negotiation, cognitive flexibility (Gray, A, 2016). Behavioural policies which hinder the application of these skills, undermine current students’ ability to manage this future and, at this rate, they will be indistinguishable from the AI surrounding them. Should they not be required to develop their emotional intelligence? If they notice others are working in that room right there, shouldn’t they be able to decide autonomously to keep the noise down? If they understand that for some students, such as those with SEN, a calm environment is required, they should be able to create it. A raucous post-breaktime arrival from a haggle of year 9s – I’ve experienced them – surely requires a dialogue about judgement. They can solve the problem, maybe with some guidance, but they can and should do it. Sadly, it seems we don’t want our children to become creative problem solvers; instead we are shaping compliant ‘yes men’ to keep the system ticking over. Be knowledgeable but be unquestioning.
But maybe the crux of the matter is that my state sector children are not meant to be the leaders and innovators. Our system is built on such a strong hierarchy, maintained by the belief that private school is what we all aspire to. This allows the students from the British private sector to maintain their lead and become the politicians, the journalists, the commentators; to be the innovators and creators who will determine the future of our nation in the global knowledge economy. My children will be their administrators. They will be compliant and unquestioning. And will call out those who do raise their heads above the parapet and remind them it’s not their place to do so.
Anyway, I have advised my children not to be ‘watchers’. It’s not nice to create distrust in a community. I have told them to question. Put your head above the parapet if you believe it’s the right thing to do. You’ll get flak no doubt, but at least you’ve refused to be silenced by the institution of which you, along with each and every one of your peers, are a vital member. After all, individuals make the institution, not the other way around…surely?
And, by the way, my children have never, to date, fallen down a set of stairs. I reckon they can walk along a corridor appropriately without being silenced. How about yours?
Adams, R. (2016) available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/dec/30/no-excuses-inside-britains-strictest-school (accessed 12.7.18)