29 January 2024

The Monday Briefing: Borderline

The Monday Briefing - Borderline

“Those who get angry when you set a boundary
are the ones you need to set boundaries for.” 

J.S. Wolfe, The Pathology of Innocence

When setting policies for effective school management, I’m always guided by the words used as the principle for the Labour Party’s odds-defyingly successful 2017 manifesto: “For the Many, Not the Few.” 

Those law-abiding citizens of the College, generally, are happy that authority takes a stance to defend order, whilst the few who get away with it care far less about the consequences.

On many fronts, the boundaries are pushed in an education environment. It is in the nature of students to test just how far they can take things. This can happen in every lesson and over the smallest of matters: Can I use ChatGPT to get my homework done without the teacher noticing? Can I sneak a quick look at my phone rather than engaging fully in the lesson? Can I get away with coming in late after lunch?

The answer to all of these is obviously: “if you want to maximise your own progress, then no.”

This week has been quite an interesting one in terms of boundary testing on the part of students. In fact, events even prompted me to write a rare letter home to all parents.

The approach at the College has always been one where students are given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their rights and responsibilities here. They are given freedom to leave the College at lunch, though there are consequences if they come back late. Work is regularly set and expectations are high in relation to the submission of it. If it is not done, or not up to these standards, then an extra school session will be issued. Completion of work, enabling student academic progress is prioritised above all, but we ensure that wellbeing and student comfort within their environment is conducive to ensuring this progress.

With this in mind, the start of the new term allowed for students to have access to the toilet facilities when required. They would, of course, have to ask permission from members of staff, and would be able to go within reason: not straight after a break time or lunch time; nor shortly before a lesson transition. It was also expected, for the benefit of all users within the College, that these facilities would be treated with respect.

Earlier in the academic year, the male facilities were not treated with the required levels of respect. I will not go into exhaustive detail here - rather I will state that I, as Principal, had reached the point where I felt it unacceptable to ask the caretaker to clean them given the level of disrespect shown.

The male students, as trust had been compromised, lost the free use of the toilets due to this. A lock system was put in place, and students could request a key to gain access, providing it was for them and them alone. In the later part of the Winter Term, the treatment of the facilities improved, so much so that they won back my belief in their ability to treat them with due care. The toilets were reopened over the Mock Examination period, and the hope was that their accessibility would continue.

It was extremely disappointing to have a report of what amounted to vandalism of both boys and girls toilets towards the end of last week. The right course of action, as trust had again been compromised, and the role of the caretaker had again been made untenable with regards to cleaning, was to revert to locking the toilets, to be accessible only with a key.

The introduction of this system started well enough. Students were following instructions by visiting the toilet alone and returning the key to myself. However, I was again disappointed that trust, so essential to this harmonious community, was abused when, having given the key to a student, and that student having not returned the key for some time, I went to inspect the toilets. No fewer than five boys were in there, some of whom were students who had already been in less than thirty minutes before (two of these were in Year 13). One GCSE student was in the wrong toilet - their facilities are situated on the floor above - and was, rather disgustingly, drinking a cup of water in there.

Two days earlier, some female students had, in an effort to circumvent the lock system, wedged the door open with sanitary products - sanitary products which the College bought for their use at their request.

In the letter, I made it abundantly clear to parents that the priority is, and must always be, productive work, leading to academic progress. Not taking time out in the toilets, chatting to friends or seeking a form of refuge. It amounts to little less than work avoidance.

The lack of any dissenting voices shows their complete agreement with this premise. Not that all students agree, of course. But the quotation at the top of this blog is the reason why those rules must be in place. Because if there are no boundaries, then those who can’t help themselves do not know when to stop.

Sadly, being part of a trusting environment leaves the door open for these infractions, as they do others.

Another event, from Wednesday, stayed prominent in my mind as the week came to a close. Three of our Year 11 students were late back from lunch, seemingly infuriated that one of their party, who had promised to buy lunch for his friends, used a debit card which was rejected. They claimed that they were held at the restaurant until the debt was cleared, with an elaborate story unfolding revolving around relatives coming to settle matters.

It all sounded a little too elaborate for my liking, so I investigated further.

I dropped by the restaurant to ask whether staff could recollect any such occurrence, and they drew a blank, so I questioned one of the group further. He coughed up the name of another restaurant which made even less sense as customers have to pay for food up front. At the end of the chat, I simply said ‘you know how much I value the truth.’

Early the next morning, the two students, so outraged a few days earlier, shuffled into my office with confessions of lies forthcoming. The boys had actually been to the mosque to pray, then had lunch - an impossibility in the 50 minute break.

They revealed all, and gave full and frank apologies for their actions, and they did not need prompting from myself. They understood the line had been crossed.

What pleased me was that they knew where the boundary was, and though they did not initially respect it, in the end, they fought to show that they valued it and those who seek to reinforce it.

One might say that ‘all’s well that ends well,’ but lessons need to be learned, and, from my perspective, I can not accept it when the borderline is not adhered to, particularly when the one who crosses it is a multiple offender. That goes for students, of course, but it can also apply to staff, or indeed parents.

Being a member of the wide community of the College brings with it responsibilities as well as rights, and it requires a certain standard of conduct. 

Everyone knows that the line of acceptable conduct exists, though some forget its importance from time to time.

Without that line, confusion, disorder and disarray abounds - and so the line needs to be defended vigorously. For the many, not the few.


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