“We wanted a calm and academic atmosphere like a high-end institution.”
These are the words British headteacher Val Masson used to defend what is becoming a more common practice in schools “across the pond”. Masson, a former humanities teacher, was hired by the Albany School in East London in 2016, shortly after the institution was given a poor review by the UK’s Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). In order to combat bad behaviour, and to increase academic achievement, Masson took a rather radical step. As of June of 2018, students were forbidden from speaking to each other in the hallways of the school.
Not only are the students expected to be silent when moving from class to class, they are also expected to do so in an orderly, straight-line fashion. Furthermore, at the end of outdoor breaks, the students, aged 12 – 15, are expected to line up for re-admittance to the building and fall into complete silence.
The idea of insisting on such tight conformity may seem rather far-fetched to some. However, Masson is not the first of her ilk to attempt to institute some rather “old school” techniques for student disciple. Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of the Michaela school in North London, has made national headlines with her approach to keeping students in check. This has included such controversial decisions as placing students in “lunch isolation”. If parents don’t pay the assigned fees for the school’s lunch program, students are not permitted to eat with their peers in the cafeteria, but instead are forced to eat with other “fee dodgers” in a separate location.
Dubbed by some as the country’s “strictest teacher”, Birbalsingh has also instituted a regime of silence in her school. Students are expected to line up silently and move between classes without speaking. She has even gone so far as to have a line drawn down the middle of the hallway to ensure a smooth flow. Any student who does happen to speak to a classmate while passing in the hallway is issued a demerit, which can lead to detention. The rationale behind these measures is straightforward. Hallways tend to be loud and disruptive. By moving silently between classes, students, at least according to Birbalsingh, are more prepared to focus on their next lesson.
The strategy may have even further benefits. In an interview with The Guardian, Birbalsingh also attributed a decline in bullying to the practice. “…they learn so much here,” she explained, “it’s quiet…They can go to the toilet here and not be worried about being bullied. At other schools you will find children who train themselves not to go to the toilet all day because they are so scared of the bullying that takes place…That isn’t the case here.”
The use of silence is only one part of a broader, much more stringent discipline strategy at the school. Students can receive detentions for being one minute late for class, for not having a pen, for failing to submit homework, and for turning around in their seats after being told not to do so.
Although some of these measures may seem a tad draconian, the use of silence has started to receive broader attention in recent years. A 2012 book by educational expert Helen Lees, Silence in Schools, looked specifically how schools use silence as both a punishment and also as a way of improving the overall wellness of students through such things as the creation of silent spaces and meditation breaks. However, both Birbalsingh and Masson have taken the idea quite a bit further. These imposed silences are about improving discipline, and through improved discipline, achieving better academic results.
This of course, brings me round to Nova Scotia schools. The politicians of the land have stated time and again that our public schools are failing academically. (They aren’t, by the way). This opinion was prominently on display recently in the fault filled Glaze report, which the government used as justification for recreating school governance in its own image. If improving the academic standing of our students was actually the goal of that particular piece of poppycock, one wonders what appetite would exist for allowing the now union-bereft principals to enforce tighter, school based, codes of conduct.
Ask any classroom teacher about the effectiveness of behaviour policy and you will probably get a very exaggerated eye roll. There is a general sense that rule following in schools is a matter of students choosing to comply rather than feeling they must do so. Not only are teachers coping with an ever decreasing ability to deal out discipline, many are also living in the shadow of the omnipresence of social media. A direct action taken against a student these days is as likely to result in a Facebook rant on how the teacher hates a particular pupil as it is to result in a positive interaction with parents. Considering how much support has been demonstrated for such ideas as banning cell phones or enforcing school dress codes, (which, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist), I feel fairly confident that instituting school silence would go over like a lead balloon.
However, as summer wanes and teachers begin to turn their minds once again to September, it will be interesting to see if the Liberal’s new system of educational governance will actually live up to the hype of improving such day-to-day practicalities as classroom discipline.
I believe I just heard a rather large “Shhh!” emanating from Province house.
Originally published in The Chronicle Herald in edited form on Saturday, August 11th.