The civic consequences of discipline and control in schooling

While out for a run on our local hills recently, two separate, and apparently unconnected occurrences got me thinking about how education should – and can – make a difference to people’s lives; and how it often doesn’t, or least does not in ways that are constructive. The first occurrence was a story – one that shocked me – told to my running partner earlier by one of her undergraduate students. The story was about school uniform practices in a high school in England, where female students are subject to specific gendered rules regarding uniform (e.g. no coloured bras), and enforcement procedures that left me astounded. In this school, female students are routinely stopped by teachers (including male staff), and asked to pull back blazers and jumpers to show that the bra is not coloured. There are rules about tight trousers for girls (incidentally, girls are not permitted to have pockets on their trousers, unlike boys). To enforce these rules, female students are subjected to the Ten Pence test. Here they are required to insert a coin down the waistband of their trousers; if it does not fall down the leg and land on the floor, the trousers are deemed to be too tight.

Quite apart from the obvious question as to how senior staff at this this school have the time to devise such procedures, the whole issue raises some profoundly troubling issues. First, the gendered nature of such practices is disturbing, although I suspect widely prevalent in schools in the UK. Linked to this are potential issues of voyeurism – [male] staff waiting to observe publicly whether a bra is coloured or a coin falls through a pair of trousers – which runs the risk of fetishising school uniform and objectifying its [female] wearers (also see Secondly, I wonder whether some schools have little sense of their educative mission, if this is what consumes them, becoming instead primarily places to discipline young people into accepting subordinate and passive places in society.

The second occurrence relates to a bag of dog excrement. As my running partner was telling me about the above, we spotted a dog poo bag close to the track – an increasingly common sight in the hills. This was full, and had been neatly tied off, then dumped on the hillside. I have no problem with people using these bags to collect their dogs’ excrement, and indeed dog waste is a major problem in many public areas. However, there are a number of issues to unpack here. First, the offending item was on an open hillside, around 2 miles from the nearest road; so why bother? Secondly, someone had clearly gone to the trouble of picking up their dog’s waste and bagging it; so presumably someone who cared about the issue – or alternatively someone deeply socialised into the notion that all dog poo needs to be bagged, regardless of context. Third, the bag had been unceremoniously slung off the track into the grass; so presumably also someone who did not understand the relative bio-degradability of dog poo and plastic, or someone who had not been similarly socialised by a rule about taking the bags back to a place of disposal. I speculate here, but the problem is sufficiently ubiquitous – hanging the bags in trees seems to be the other option for disposal – that one wonders why people can be so rule-bound that they do not question whether the rule is actually appropriate in any given situation, and also why they seem unable to take the longer term responsibility for disposal.

As I suggested in the opening paragraph, these are unconnected occurrences: the first is about control and discipline in schools, and the second about a distorted sense of civic responsibility. Nevertheless, education has effects, and I would argue that the latter is perhaps influenced by a tendency for schooling to discipline and control rather than educate. The dog poo bag seems to be a metaphor for a commonplace rule-bound and unreflexive way of living, and this takes us back to the first story, which is fundamentally about the school as a medium for a narrow socialisation of young people, rather than as a genuinely educative space. We see, in the UK at least, the continued emphasis on old-fashioned school uniforms, including fancy blazers (replete with coloured braid) that would seem more at home in an Enid Blyton novel than in a modern learning environment. This continued focus on how one looks and conforms (as opposed to how one is taught to think critically) seems to me to be the antithesis of education (for a critique of school uniforms, see It combines with a modern focus in school on often purposeless activity, where what one learns and why one learns it have come to be less important than how one learns, and the skills that one develops from the process. As Jenny Reeves has recently written in a powerful article in Scottish Educational Review, we have thrown out ‘the baby of educational purpose along with the bathwater of curricular content’.

I am not arguing here for a return to traditional notions of subject-driven schooling, as exemplified by some current developments in England. I am, however, suggesting that schools need to become more focused on educating young people to be critical and reflexive adults, and this does require a knowledge-rich (as opposed to subject-driven) and balanced curriculum, with its roots in the big question of what education is for. Gert Biesta’s work on the purposes of education is entirely relevant here. Biesta has argued for an appropriate balance between three overlapping and sometimes competing functions of education: 1] qualification (development of skills and knowledge, not the piece of paper that accredits the process); 2] socialisation (into our present societies); and 3] subjectification (the growth of each person into the unique individual that they can become given the right nurturing). Such a view of education is about enabling individuals to become tolerant members of society, whilst developing the faculties required for critical engagement with that society, potentially leading to challenge of structural inequality and social change. The anecdotes that started this blog post suggest that we are a long way from this balanced view of schooling as education.