The Rubik’s Cube of school behaviour - why exclusions are needed to make complex systems work

The Rubik’s Cube of school behaviour - why exclusions are needed to make complex systems work

Boys and girls of a certain age will recall the Rubik’s cube, the craze that, like many others, conquered the world and then vanished forever. Everyone thought they could have a crack at solving it, but few could. Most could get one side completed. But the problem was that when you started on the next, you ended up spoiling the perfection of the first one. The world was full, at one point, of cubes with one side solved, left in frustration in waiting rooms everywhere. 

Schools are like that: complex systems, hard to solve, easy to mess up the bit you got right. There are two problems:

1. You can focus on one aspect- like punctuality, or equipment, or homework, but in a system with finite resources, shifting focus from one thing often means neglecting another. 

2. Another problem is the law of unintended consequences. Sometimes what seems like the right thing to pursue, is only part of a larger problem. Sometimes, focussing on fixing one part of the system leads to a break somewhere else. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, trying to do the right thing makes things worse. Getting rid of your wheels might make your car lighter, but it’s not going to go any faster, or anywhere fr that matter.

Take, for example, the Rubik’s Cube of the global environment, and the problems that beset it:  finite resources, escalating populations, exponential consumption and so on. We’re like Wile E Coyote, sawing away at the plank upon which we stand, high above a canyon floor. 

One part of that problem is plastic. Its virtue- indestructibility- is also the problem. What won’t break down, chokes our wildlife and beaches, and drives a tractor through delicate ecosystems. The 20th century’s wonder polymer, infinite in its utility, starts to become a resource hoover, locking away material we find hard to recover. The sensible person might reasonably deduce that the solution is to make sure that all plastics are biodegradable. This seems on the face of it to be good advice. The plastic breaks down, the material returns to the wild, and we can reharvest it as we please. Problem solved?

No, problem shifted. If we throw our lovely biodegradable bottles into the normal bin, as opposed to the recycling bin, then it goes to compost. But these new degradable materials are harder to compost; they are too dry, and the machines that sort such things cannot work with the wrong balance of materials. So, often biodegradable (rather than recyclable) plastic simply goes to landfill, and we are back where we started.  

Experts in such matters believe that one thing we need to focus on is making sure manufacturers consider the entire life of a plastic product; thinking about not just the end but the afterlife of the bottle. How can it be reused? The value of a plastic bottle (once emptied) is in its shape, its bottle-ness, not in the raw material. So make them valuable by retaining their shape. Make them worth collecting centrally.

The point is that a straight-line solution isn’t always the best way to achieve the goal you want. It can even makes things worse not better- or make the goal harder to achieve.

Back to schools and behaviour. I meet many well-intentioned people who love children and want nothing but the best for them.  But frequently the mistake they sometimes make is to call for the abolition of (or an absolute reduction in) exclusions, permanent or fixed. They cite the enormous correlation between exclusion and prison; they frequently point to the high prevalence of mental health issues in the excluded, or the fact that a great many of them fall into unemployment or crime. 

There is no room for humbug in this discussion Everyone wants to see less of that. I have never met a defender of a school’s right to exclude say, ‘Who cares?’ when faced with those bullet points Let us not dwell on who cares the most, as if only one side of this discussion had a monopoly on compassion. Care wars are ideological rather than practical. 

The problem with removing or reducing excursions artificially, by simply making it harder to do so, or by creating toxic disincentives at a system level to do so, is that while it might seem like a job well done, it is a simplistic response to a complex problem. The problem of crime is not that there are prisons. Crime is a problem because it happens too much. Prisons are a symptom. We do not solve criminality by closing prisons, although to a mad bureaucrat it might seem like a victory. But that victory is pyrrhic. permanent exclusions are and should be a last resort- another view with few genuine opponents, although acres of words are wasted on imagining otherwise. 

If behaviour has nowhere to go, it goes nowhere

Every system needs a terminal sanction point. There must be, for that system to function, an understanding that there are lines that cannot be crossed without serious consequences. Every society needs a removal clause, because no society can tolerate its members ignoring its own mores and customs. To look at it another way, no society has ever thrived which has not been able to do so. I regard these as axioms for the existence of any form of civilised community. Beyond handfuls of people over short sales fo time, morality must be codified, understood, and patrolled by consequences. Law becomes essential in large groups. I’ll reconsider those axioms the instant someone provides me with counterexamples.

And without consequences, we have no law. If nobody thought any sanction would follow murder, would anyone be unwise enough to argue anything other than that murders would escalate? Even if some obeyed the custom, some would always ignore it, and that is enough. Indeed, it would become advantageous to be a rule breaker in such a system, because it would give you an edge over the law abiding and virtuous. 

Hoping good people will be good is not enough. All communities need customs, enforced by penalties. Lest anyone raise an obvious objection, of course, sanctions are only part of a greater school system. No behaviour can truly be sorted by sanction alone. They must be communicated, valued, shared. But culture without consequences soon becomes no culture at all, ruined by a minority, but sufficient, element within our communities that seeks its own ends with no account of the needs of others. 

Exclusions support the whole behaviour system

Lose the concept of removal, and the whole system suffers. If no one can ever be removed, what deterrent exists for the determined? And in such circumstances, what is to deter lesser misdemeanours? I’ve seen many such schools, where the generous intention to include (no matter what), leads to the unintended outcome of civility’s doom. Children, often our best guides in these matters, are perplexed when we the adults do not protect and serve them in times of danger. ‘Why didn’t you send him out sir?’ I’ve heard from mature children who wonder if we have forgotten how to adult. ‘Oh but there’s no use sending that boy out,’ I’ve heard from normally sound professionals. ‘It won’t do them any good.’

That kind of thinking makes the mistake of the amateur Rubikologist. It believes that ends are best served directly and simply. Removing a violent or abusive student from the mainstream community, internally or otherwise, has an enormous impact. It makes the classroom a safer place to work and study. It facilitates learning. It makes the job bearable. It promotes the idea that all children will be treated with dignity, and that dignity given succour by the system. It models to staff that they are valued, and they are not expected to suffer endless wounds. 

Even the best special and alternative learning environments have internal removal processes. They understand that even in circumstances where the most troubled and damaged children are brought to be looked after, loved and taught, there will be rooms, zone and circumstances to which they must be taken, both for their safety and the safety of others. 

Remember, this is done so that more children than ever can be included, meaningfully. 

Getting the best for everyone, not just a few

This isn’t about composting nuisance children in the recycling tub. It’s about creating a culture where everyone knows that rules and rights are valued and- crucially- upheld. Removals are the glue that holds this culture together. Without them, everything else crumbles. With them, not only is the culture possible, but they eventually aim to their own extinction, as children are helped to manage their behaviour better, earlier. Because, perhaps counter-intuitively, the sensible and measured use of removals, helps to reduce the need to remove. Removing that option only turns the classroom into a holding pen, the corridors into a no-man’s land, where behaviour starts to bubble and boil over. 

If we want to save the environment, we need to think more about how we use plastic, not ban plastic. And if we want to reduce exclusions, then we need to exclude sensibly, with care about when it happens, to whom, and what then happens to them. But at a time when we are debating such matters, it is important to know why we use them in the first place. And to appreciate that behaviour in a school is a complex machine, too complicated to be fixed by simply plucking out a part that offends us. I know this often baffles those unused to running such systems. But for the sake of every child and staff member- and for the good of all, not just the many or the few- we need to remind ourself that we teach children as they are, not as we would wish them to be.  And by that simple act, we help them to flourish more than they could have ever imagined.