Should ‘Lord of the Flies’ be the basis of school rules? Today’s #HotTopic

3rd July 2021

Over on Twitter, the educationalist and head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh set out in a thread her thinking about school rules.

So as to reduce the scope for any misrepresentation, here is the thread in full:


My immediate response to this earnest exposition was to tweet that it was priceless that a thread about academic standards started off by confusing Lord of the Flies with Lord of the Rings.

This was what would have been called in the days of the school standards urged, a ‘howler’.

And this howler prompted treasured memories of Alan Partridge’s Hot Topic:


Caller:  ‘Well I enjoyed the Hobbit more than “Riverdance”. And I think that lots of boys on an island killing a fat boy is not so enjoyable as Gandalf, with a long white beard.’

Alan Partridge: ‘Okay, if you’ve just joined us, we’re talking about who is the best lord. “Lord of the Rings”, “of the Dance” or “of the Flies”. That’s tonight’s “hot topic”.’


Katharine Birbalsingh was not amused:

And so, as a courtesy, and with my immediate point having been made, I deleted my tweet.


But as a further recompense for my irksome tweet, I thought I should set out some thoughts about ‘rules’ – in schools and elsewhere.

After all, this is a blog about law and policy – and laws are rules, and education policy is a policy.


One important quality that rules should have is, as Katharine Birbalsingh avers, consistency.

But there are other important qualities.

Another important quality of rules is credibility.

If a rule seems daft – indeed absurd – then it will be difficult for the individuals affected to take the rule seriously.

And if a rule is not taken seriously, people will tend not to comply with the rule, and those charged with enforcing the rule will tend to avoid enforcing it.

So, for example:

‘But we don’t enforce silence or sitting up straight in society, so why in schools?’.

The reason why those rules would not be enforced in society is because they would be daft rules, and they would be derided.

There are enough problems in getting people to comply with the legal rules that do exist:

‘Our prisons are packed.’


Another important quality of rules is that they are proportionate and just – both in their nature and in their enforcement.

But a problem with strict rules – especially those with onerous sanctions – is that there can be no restraint on those enforcing the rules.

The enforcers become the bullies.

Power tends to corrupt, as some old liberal once said, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And so we come to the crux of Katharine Birbalsingh’s argument:

‘…the main thing that makes a school good or bad is its CULTURE.  And that culture is hugely dependent on strict rules to ensure a few don’t ruin it for the many.’

[Block capitals in the original.]

One way of thinking about this proposition is to replace the word ‘school’ with the word ‘society’:

‘…the main thing that makes a society good or bad is its CULTURE.  And that culture is hugely dependent on strict rules to ensure a few don’t ruin it for the many.’

In this recasting, you have what is the essence of illiberal totalitarianism.

Your rights are restricted, but it is only for your own good, and to protect you from the Other.

Given that the thread jumps from points about schools to those about society, it is not (I hope) unfair to set out this transposition, and its implications.

Back in the context of a school (or indeed any particular institution within society), the imposition and enforcement of strict rules can be the means by which the few (those who impose and enforce rules) can indeed ‘ruin it for the many’ (those who have to comply with those rules – or else).

Strictness as an end in and of itself can be as much a means of bullying of the ‘many’ as what the strictness purports to address.


Now we come to the hobgoblins on the beach.

The schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies.

These are the horrors – the marooned turnip-ghosts – from which we need to protect our children.

If adults do not step in, it will go all Lord of the Flies.


A good response to Katharine Birbalsingh’s point here is this tweet:


Lord of the Flies is one of those books about which anyone who knows of it will have an opinion about it.

And often that opinion will have been formed (or imposed) at school when it was a set text.

There is, of course, not one ultimately correct view of any literary text.

(This is where literature perhaps differs from law, where the conceit is that each legal text has an ultimate correct meaning – ho ho.)

In her thread, Katharine Birbalsingh was positing (or was intending to posit) the island in Lord of the Flies as the world of lawlessness – the anarchy, the chaos that every small-c conservative fears:

‘Because as society has laws, schools need order. Otherwise bullying/harassment. Lord of the [Flies].’

Of course, one of the places in our society which are nearest to the anti-ideal of this lawlessness, where bullying and harassment are rife are, well, prisons:

‘Our prisons are packed. We remove permanently those who won’t obey laws.’

And, other than a few dozen full-life sentence prisoners, the intention is that all convicts – over 80,000 of them – are to return to society after this experience of bullying and harassment.


The counter-argument to Katharine Birbalsingh’s thread is that the imposition and enforcement of strict rules as an end in themselves can become a means of the ‘bullying and harassment’ that she claims to want to avoid.

Or the rules may become discredited and thereby pointless.

The important qualities for any body of rules are consistency (on which she is right) but also credibility and proportionality.

Otherwise the rules become part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

Rules are crucial – and as a law and policy commentator, I would say that wouldn’t I, else I would have nothing to commentate on – but their strictness is not an important quality.

Credibility and fairness are far more important than strictness.

Rules are an essential means of moderating power relationships – and they prevent those with power from injuring or exploiting those without power.

The principle of the rule of law means that legal rules bind the mighty as well as the weak.

And so to function properly rules need to have legitimacy, and not just firmness.

For, when rules lose their legitimacy…

…it all goes a bit Lord of the Flies:

‘“We’ll have rules!” [Jack] cried excitedly. “Lots of rules! Then when anyone breaks ’em–”


‘Jack was the first to make himself heard. He had not got the conch and thus spoke against the rules; but nobody minded.


‘“The rules!” shouted Ralph.

‘“You’re breaking the rules!”

‘“Who cares?”’

Who indeed.


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49 thoughts on “Should ‘Lord of the Flies’ be the basis of school rules? Today’s #HotTopic”

  1. Some very interesting observations there, but they miss the role of school in instilling habits for a lifetime. Without supporting strictness for strictness’ sake, I do believe that the use of clear rules that put the focus on the teaching have real value.

  2. One thing that struck me about her comparison between school rules and the law (“Because as society has laws, schools need order”) is that – theoretically – society’s laws apply to all, including the enforcers of the rules. So are the teachers in Ms Birbalsingh’s school also required to smile and ask permission to pick up a pen etc., or is her school teaching pupils that it’s one rule for the the enforcers, and a different one for the rest of us?

    Presuming the teachers don’t have to follow the same rules that they enforce, with a certain degree of snark one could say that Ms Birbalsingh’s school is realistically preparing its pupils for life in 2021.

    1. I think you are referring to John Ferneley College in Melton Mowbray there.

      The school has received criticism in the local and national media for a new behaviour policy, drawn up by the school’s new head, which is to be implemented in at the start of the 2021-2022 academic year. These newer rules require pupils to smile at all times, make continuous eye contact with staff, to not look out of windows, to always sit up straight, to walk in single file at all times, to not pick up stationery unless specifically directed to do so by staff, to learn and respond to a series of whistle commands from staff and to be constantly grateful that they have the privilege to be at the school.

      I imagine there will be no need to call for volunteers to form an escape committee from amongst either the students or the staff.

      One fears school governing bodies do not always consider whether or not applicants desperate for the power of a headship are necessarily the best qualified to be given it.

  3. Excellent as always. As an aside, I thought the references to strictness being a substitute for selection was rather telling.

  4. Someone once said to me that “the most important quality in a democracy is a sense of humour”. That is a quality which is abundantly present in your post, and notably absent in the original tweeter’s responses. I know which kind of CULTURE or society I’d rather live in.

  5. Schools need a set of rules to bring some degree of order to chaos but they can’t be arbitrary either and would be based on some set of values or principles reflected in society.

    I can understand where Ms Birbalsingh is coming from but it begs the question as to whose or which set of values her own, or any school rules might reflect: “British” values which seem to bend with the wind; something else based on some quasi-religious teachings; a vague principle of “fairness” or a secular constitution-based ideal as seen in the US?

    Ah, the constitution question, again!

  6. Thank you for this; I entirely agree with your thoughts. Earlier today, I responded to a tweet from Steve Peers about this matter, as follows:

    “Having seen several riffs on her confusion today, I took a look at her timeline. “Miss Snuffy” seems well named, imo, in terms of snuffing out the joy, exhilaration and desire to learn that kids can feel and acquire in a compassionate, nurturing educational environment.”

  7. ‘…the main thing that makes a school good or bad is its CULTURE. And that culture is hugely dependent on strict rules to ensure a few don’t ruin it for the many.’
    I’m not sure you can replace school with society, they are different beasts.

  8. Excellent post. I come to the issue from psychology and learning, so I’d probably frame a similar response but with a different basis. Learners are trying to work out the “rules of the game”, but that is not necessarily what the teachers intend. The “rules of the game” are, what works for them, and they could easily be antisocial or illegal. Strictness is nowhere near as important as consistency, because without that, what people will learn is that those in power can do what they choose, leading to bad outcomes: a drive to take power, learned helplessness, smashing the system. I don’t take Golding’s novel too deeply, but empathy for learners, imagining their perspective, seems to be deeply absent in this particular drive for strictness. In fact, taking authority and power as a primary good leaves me shivering with horror. Fairness and consistency, justice even, are far more important. Small humans know that as well as big ones, until our society corrodes those values.

    1. There are more things in heaven and hell, Gradgrind, than are dreamt of in your approach to education?


      ‘All right,’ said Susan. ‘I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need . . . fantasies to make life bearable.’


      ‘Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—’


      ‘So we can believe the big ones?’


      ‘They’re not the same at all!’


      ‘Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—’


      I would rather children of all ages studied Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather for just this extract, alone, of a debate between Death and his granddaughter, a governess responsible for the education of two small children, than have to endure Lord of the Flies.

      I had to study Lord of the Flies as a set text in secondary school so I may be biased.

      1. An aside: Terry Pratchett and William Golding lived but a mile apart in the Chalke Valley in SW Wiltshire, though a few decades apart in time.
        Golding taught English at the boys’ grammar school in Salisbury that my son later attended. The characters in Lord of the Flies were one of Golding’s year groups. The school still receives requests for assurance that the boys will not be used as Golding used them. In their mid-teens my son’s class were identifiable as Lord of the Flies characters. A decade on they are not. They’re mostly lovely people who would laugh at their earlier selves.
        Pratchett was reclusive and engaged very little with the community. But he walked in the hills where we walked so he talked to us. To my children he was “The Man in the Hat who Likes to Chat”. He was a formative influence in instilling a strong sense of social justice in both my children.
        Golding and Pratchett lived and wrote in different eras. Golding observed his time; Pratchett commented on his. Both were profoundly perceptive and outstanding writers. But Pratchett is probably the better voice for our time.

      1. I was going to raise that one too – glad you got there first. It’s amazing how many people generalise from Lord of the Flies – which is fictional – while ignoring the factual evidence in the opposite direction.

  9. I agree with her thread in one aspect only – the culture of a school (or any institution) is hugely important and fundamentally determines the success or otherwise of the institution.

    However, engendering cultural change, or establishing a culture, is HARD, while imposing rules is relatively easy. While acceptance and adherence to the rules is an aspect of institutional culture, Goodhart’s Law applies. Schools (perhaps in particular) tend to conflate the ideas that “If we have good culture, everyone will abide by the rules” with “If we make everyone abide by the rules, we will have a good culture”.

    They are not the same.

    1. Social interactions are not however one way: culture affects compliance and compliance affects culture; the coherence and consistency of rules affect both. Coherence and consistency – rule of law, if you like – are needed to create a stable system, else it will be continually perturbed, and liable to breakdown.

  10. Too much ‘strictness’ is a failing in a school environment for me. Schools function to train people to enter the adult world. Pupils need to learn to negotiate a nebulous set of rules that are a mix of negotiation, custom, and enforcement. This schools is all enforcement, under the guise of ‘culture’. If these rules are all set and enforced harshly at school, how do they cope in a relatively unstructured world? (which is exactly the LotF example)

    Just on culture vs enforcement briefly: the parents sending children are self-selecting, so are predisposed to this kind of thinking (or at least willing to tolerate it to get grades), so the culture is only partially from the school. Second, if no alternative culture is allowed to co-exist (it sounds like anything approaching dissent is stamped out) then how can you distinguish harsh enforcement from culture?

  11. In terms of the comparison between “school” and “society”, there are situations where many of us would more instinctively support the need to prevent things being ruined by a “few” – a funeral, for example, or a minute’s silence at a sporting occasion. I don’t mean to suggest that a school needs to be as strict as either of these cases, but perhaps it lies somewhere between that and “society”.

    1. Thank you. I was going to refer to this. Bregman’s book ‘Humankind’, from which this article is taken, is an interesting challenge to the Hobbesian assumptions about human nature that underlie the whole approach of ‘strict rules’ and suggests a much more nuanced, and on the whole more positive, view. It’s an important question, because if our assumptions are wrong, our ‘solutions’ will not have the desired effect. The strict enforcement of ‘rules’, as practiced in some English public schools throughout much of the 20th century, may be a case in point.

  12. I have found that my children learn and develop with discussion and negotiation, much more than just demands of compliance. School is not home and requires stricter boundaries for sure, but students aren’t soldiers. There are many ways to create productive learning environments. The ability to listen, be flexible, and have empathy takes account of the growing adolescent human in their care, while setting an example for how to treat others.

  13. The idea of policing by consent seems important here. Do we want to raise children to “just follow orders”, or recognise the value of and defend a rule of law because it benefits us all?

  14. A disproportionate number of those in prison, temporarily, in the UK have low levels of literacy and numeracy. Possibly explaining why they got caught in the first place?

    Although one of my clients was deaf in one ear and had been caught by the copper coming up on that side. He was a gang’s look out during a burglary …

    Ms Birbalsingh might lobby her friends in government to put prison education back on a firm, well funded footing with provision tailored and adequate to the needs of the captive client group.

    And when I say adequate, I do not mean NVQ1s in Catering, Gardening or Construction.

    It must be very demotivating on leaving prison to learn that NVQs at that level are not greatly valued by employers, despite for many old lags their certificates being the first tangible evidence that they are really not stupid.

    That the education system had as much as anything else failed them.

    I interviewed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many beneficiaries of that Golden Age of Education of the 1950s, beloved of Michael Gove of free schools fame. Recently unemployed, a fair few of my interviewees were barely able to read or write.

    A lot of public money at national and local level was spent in the decades after the 1950s seeking to make up for a system that had prepared a minority to undertake the role of an officer class and the majority to be regimented members of the other ranks, minding machines and their ps and qs.

    I had thought we had moved on. That every child matters and that no child is to be left behind …

    “Parents want lovely schools but you won’t get them without rules or intense selection.”

  15. Going to secondary school in the early 70’s, I went from a village school where every one knew each other and their families to a school of 1500 pupils plus.
    The rules at junior school were relaxed but there was no anarchy and no bullying. Just well behaved children who knew what was expected of them and happily agreed. No disruption in the class and kids of all abilities learning along side each other at their own pace.
    Indeed if you were ahead of the class on a given subject, you were expected to help others to understand the work. So a series of mini teachers within each subject. teachers trusted pupils and in return the school was harmonious.
    The secondary school was the opposite. It had just gone from a grammar to comprehensive 2 years before I went. The rules were extremely strict and treated all pupils as troublemakers in waiting. The rules didn’t prevent bullying from either the staff or pupils. Nor did the school take bullying seriously as complains were always waved away as either fabrications or youthful play!

  16. I remember our deputy head master addressing the assembled prefects, who were expected to uphold the rules of the selective school I attended (a school wear bullying and harassment of every kind was rife): “everyone wants to be a rebel, but the real rebels are the ones who rebel against the rebels and uphold the rules”. I always found it very insulting to our intelligence. Also, there are very strict rules in prison, both official and unofficial. It’s part of what makes their effect on their residents so damaging.

  17. I think, for a moment at least, we should also consider the original proposition. As an academic exercise, perhaps. What is the role of strict rules in the world of Lord of the Rings? Is it an absence of strict rules that has led to the deteriorating state of affairs in Middle Earth at the beginning of the trilogy?

    As this is a blog comment, not a full school essay, I will treat the matter briefly.

    It is hard to see that stricter rules could have limited Sauron’s lust for power. And Sauron himself seems to apply the strictest rules anywhere in Middle Earth: Orc armies have strict hierarchies. The Nazgul are bound to Sauron’s whims by their nine rings. Yet this does not lead to a good “culture” in Mordor.

    By contrast, The Shire, the home of the hobbits, seems fairly freewheeling. For example, Wikipedia comments, “The Shire had little in the way of government”, and for its police, the Shiriffs, their “chief duties were rounding up stray livestock”. With such an apparent lack of strict rules, how could such an indomitable hero as Frodo Baggins have arisen? How come the culture of hobbits is not riven by chaos and poor behaviour?

    We can aver, therefore, that a lack of stricter rules was not the reason for the rise of Sauron and the breakdown of order In Middle Earth; did not stop Frodo growing into the hobbit who could overthrow Sauron and restore order; and was not a barrier (nor was their imposition a prerequisite) to the resumption of civil society after Sauron’s downfall.

  18. Starting a new school, culture, started anew, may well be a huge factor.
    And changeable.
    Under conditions which I think are rare, eg starting with one form and a clear idea, explained to them, and accepted of agreed by them, of what that culture should be and why.
    Walking into an existing school with a form or 3 for each year and issuing an edict seems to me less likely of success.

    Teachers should, and do, take note of how pupils are, physically, socially, and mentally. Demanding each displays the same, false, smile must hamper that.

    Staff/pupil ratio is the main thing, isn’t it?

    And I also think a spot of questin’ – LOTR rather than the imaginary dystopia LOTF – would be no bad thing to train generation hot for.

  19. I wonder what leads a headteacher to believe that she must oppress her pupils with strict rules, for fear that otherwise they might murder each other.

    Also rather disheartening that her reaction to a factual correction is scolding for rudeness and pettiness.

    What grade she would award to a pupil who presented that meandering stream of non sequiturs in answer to the question she posed?

  20. I actually agree with much of what you say. Rules are necessary but not sufficient. You need love, relationships, connection, good teaching, inspiration and all sorts!

    You also need the correct rules. Absolutely.

    What I don’t understand is why you think that having rules means that teachers are bullies.

    At michaela, I think our rules are great. So do the kids. And they like following them and would be v upset if we took them away as they would feel less safe and less able to thrive.

    Why does this make us into bullies?

    Our teachers love the kids and we hold them to high standards. I think that’s a good thing.

    And as I have said before, I would have so much more respect for you if you could stop referring to the rings/flies point. Makes you look like you are interested in the wrong things. And as you pointed out, being interested in the right stuff matters.

    1. I think it doesn’t help that you seem to be repeatedly implying that the alternative to your rules is to have no rules at all and that rules are automatically good. “having rules means teachers are bullies”. Nobody is saying that.

      Rules can be unjust, wrong or just crackers. The mandatory smiling, for example, has such a ring of absurdity to it that I’ve assumed it’s been misrepresented and the reality is more nuanced.

      Anyway, I’d be interested to know how the impacts of your rules, good and bad, are assessed.

      1. I can’t be certain that you’ve done this, but two different schools seem to be being conflated in this debate – the mandatory smiling story was about a school in Leicestershire while Ms Birbalsingh’s is in London. If anything the Leics. one sounds a fair bit more extreme than Ms B.’s, although her thread seems to indirectly endorse it.

        1. Thanks, Phil – I had indeed done that, thanks for letting me know. Always important to be right about the detail :)

          I don’t think it unduly detracts from the overall point though, even if the specific example doesn’t apply.

  21. Sorry but was that ‘slip’ then changed? Not having access to Twitter currently so genuine question.

    If yes great and bravo to Headteacher. If not we can all draw clear conclusions about the culture of learning in her school.

    1. The tweet with the ‘slip’ is still up, but she does acknowledge the mistake several times in the replies. Deleting the tweet would of course also remove much of the subsequent discussion and so arguably wouldn’t be for the greater good.

  22. She says that strict rules make a culture. She should say a cult.

    And, in my opinion, it was a mistake to delete your tweet. It means that people on Twitter now do not know whether her response was reasonable and proportionate as they cannot see what it refers to.

  23. Other people’s children are little beasts and rough too, mine of course are lovely studious kids who do their homework and use a handkerchief. Which of Brent’s schools would your typical lawyer prefer – private not being an option. I would prefer Ms Snuffy’s Academy – educating ones kids has an element of sharp elbows about it.

    Is it all fair – of course not. Educational strategy has its roots back in Plato’s gold – silver – bronze fable. Except it is not really a fable. Its boundaries may be shiftable through pushing and money but a glance at Brent’s schools reveals that Plato’s reality is all we can/will afford and it matches the unpleasant reality of society.

    Ms Snuffy is doing her little bit to help out (or preserve status quo) in her little corner of the world. If you want the world changed go wave a banner or a musket.

  24. On the fairness/credibility point, I’m afraid there is something to be said for learning to follow rules that you might think are unfair or silly.

    There are many laws in the UK that I think are unfair or silly. I follow them though, because a) they’ve been determined by an agreed upon process, b) I don’t want to go to prison c) if everyone can cherry pick the rules they want to follow, it’s going to end in tears.

    It is not a bad idea for children, candidate members of society, to borrow from Christopher Hitchens, to learn to follow rules in spite of their perceived illogic. One might say it’s their first introduction to the rule of law (an area in which, as this blog has previously pointed out, many of our politicians could do with some remedial education).

    Obviously if you draw this point out ad absurdum, you could say “Well what if a rule says you must kill every kitten on sight?” to which the response is clearly there has to be a moral line that neither the rule taker nor the rule maker will cross. Fortunately both school head teachers and politicians are themselves limited by the law in terms of what new and arbitrary rules they can impose.

  25. The stuff about the kids liking the rules makes me think of Partridge sidling up to his radio colleagues and asking them, point blank, “DO YOU LIKE ME?”.

    “and they all said ‘yes'”

  26. ‘Strictness’ in schools is an emotive topic as it is often applied both to the rules and the ways they are enforced.

    However no school rule is strict in and off itself. It may be ‘restrictive’, but unless it is actually enforced, has no power.

    However school leaders like to announce their ‘strict’ rules as a shorthand for a school culture of discipline, order, certainty, high standards etc. This is backed up with reference to glowing OFSTED reports and exam performance as proof their approach works.

    Strictness is shorthand for the strict enforcement of restrictive rules. As referring to rules as strict seems to conflate both the rules and their enforcement, perhaps using the term restrictive might be better when referring to the rules themselves.

    I only hope the teachers can use their judgement when it comes to their application.

    Bona fides: 13 years teaching in secondary school.

  27. ‘When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean’ Great thread and comments isn’t it time for some basic Lewis Carroll?

  28. I think the flaw in the original Twitter thread – at least as I read it – is believing that rules lead to culture. I would suggest that culture leads to rules. A good example is seat-belts where legislation followed public opinion – the same with drink driving and smoking.
    I didn’t read DAG’s response as saying that culture isn’t important – more that organisational culture needs to be rooted in fairness. To revive an old concept, it needs to be more of a social compact.
    Culture is vitally important but how that culture is developed is the key. ‘Rules for rules’ sake’ is not the way forward. Walking on one side of the corridor is sensible and simple to explain; random and unjustifiable rules about hairstyles are not.

  29. I found the absence of any mention of “consent” on the part of the children to this bizarre regime quite troubling.

    Having observed the legal hoops that must be negotiated before someone at the other end of their life can be subjected to rules for their own protection, even when their understanding of their situation is less than a child’s, I would have thought children should have an expectation of similar respect.

    That’s not to say they should have carte blanche, but equally neither should anyone else claiming “authority”.

  30. “I could never answer to a whistle. Whistles are for dogs and cats and other animals, but not for children and definitely not for me.”

    I’m with Maria (Julia Andrew, Sound of Music) on this.

  31. **My comment got far longer than I intended, and also far more critical! I apologise as I have a lot of time and respect for your content. ** Respectfully, I think this article is attacking a strawman. At no point did you lay out in your own terms what it was that Birbalsingh was arguing, instead just leaving her tweets floating at the top of your article. This is not normally an issue, except that it did leave your argument unstructured and without a clear divergence from Birbalsingh’s arguments. What is Birbalsingh arguing? That ‘strictness’ in school rules is a good thing. Sure. So, what is ‘strictness’? Neither you nor Birbalsingh seek to answer this, which means that you transform her argument into a strawman.
    You answer her on apparently three points: First, that a rule must be credible as well as enforced. Second, that rules should be proportionate and just. And third, that Lord of the Flies can be used to justify whatever anybody wants it to justify. However, it doesn’t really seem that these had much to do with her argument.
    Firstly, Birbalsingh argues that rules must be enforced in school or else, “the weakest get trampled”. A culture of order is necessary – allowing students to slouch presumably creates a culture of lax behavioural standards which enables a culture of bullying. Ultimately, what Birbalsingh is arguing here is effectively the application of ‘Broken Window Policing’ to schools. This is the answer to her rhetorical question “We don’t enforce silence or sitting up straight in society, so why in schools?”. The idea is that if you strictly enforce minor rules, you promote a culture of rule-following which ultimately makes it easier to enforce more significant rules. You seemed to miss the point of this, replying that these rules are “daft” and unenforceable within society. The problem is, they are not daft in schools. Students need to be silent in lessons. The equivalent of these rules in society is the enforcement of minor, sensible rules (such as the rule not to break windows). The idea is that the enforcement of these minor standards then creates compliance with more significant standards. Regardless of the merits of ‘Broken Window Policing’, you haven’t really engaged with the substance of it and therefore you have missed the crux of Birbalsingh’s argument.
    The second point, on rules being proportionate and just, also talks across Birbalsingh. You argue that the problem with strict rules “especially those with onerous sanctions – is that there can be no restraint on those enforcing the rules.” This is nonsense. I mean it is truly nonsense. In society, there is restraint on the enforcement of rules. As a lawyer, you are of course aware of the appeals process within law, of the potential sanctions for prosecutors, judges, and police of malicious and unjust applications of the law. Some enforcement of rules can even be illegal, thanks to the whole host of laws that regulate the enforcement of the law! Inevitably, there is the time-old conundrum of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, but to suggest that because no restraint on those enforcing the rules can be 100% effective that “there can be no restraint” is nonsense. Sadly, you go further than this.
    You recast her tweet to say “the main thing that makes a society good or bad is its CULTURE. And that culture is hugely dependent on strict rules to ensure a few don’t ruin it for the many.”
    You go on to add that this is “the essence of illiberal totalitarianism”. From what cauldron of hyperbole was this concocted? Our society is predicated on the enforcement of rules. We all have rights, we all have freedoms, but, as is often said, the freedom to swing your fist ends where my face begins. This is not illiberal totalitarianism. It is the fundamental truth of how we live together in a community. We create strict rules within a framework designed to provide as much freedom for individuals as possible so that one person’s freedom does not inhibit another’s. Illiberal totalitarianism would be the total application of rules surrounding every aspect of one’s life, removing the dividing line between state power and the individual – between public and private life. When Arendt wrote on the Origins of Totalitarianism, she did not conclude that 20th Century Totalitarianism was forged in the injustice created by a teacher demanding that a teenage pupil stop slouching. Yes, totalitarianism would accurately describe the over-regulation of the individual by the government and the enforcement of total consistency. It could even describe ‘Broken Window Policing’ in some cases. But in schools, we accept that children are subject to stricter rules than in society. As a sixteen-year-old, my peers and I were allowed to venture off-site for lunch, (usually hunting an elusive Supermarket Meal Deal). We were forced to sign in and out and give details of where we were going for safeguarding reasons. Now, being forced to provide the exact purposes of my movements and being required to be in certain places by certain times (or else be punished) could be described as totalitarian in society, but in school is necessary and right. This article misses the fact that rules applied in school are necessarily different in their nature and enforcement to rules applied in wider society.
    Despite this, the article then warns that “Strictness as an end in and of itself can be as much a means of bullying of the ‘many’ as what the strictness purports to address.”. Now, this can be true in relation to the authority of the state over the individual. But in relation to the authority that a teacher holds over a pupil? Not so much. Teachers are regulated. Teachers cannot bully children. Teachers cannot set rules which would be discriminatory or apply rules in a discriminatory manner. There are meaningful and effective measures in place to deal with the bullying of students by staff, and where those measures are not fit-for-purpose, there is the opportunity to make them so. Rules applied in school are different to rules applied by the state as rules applied in school are governed by the state. Rules enforced by the state are governed by a framework of international law that is notoriously more difficult to enforce successfully, especially when the strong bully the weak. (See: Russia annexing Crimea).
    Finally, we arrive at ‘Lord of the Flies’. It’s not strictly relevant to the discussion, but you have fixated on it anyway. It is also not true that there is an infinite number of correct interpretations of any literary work. There is often a lot of ambiguity in works of art, but you can generally discern themes and author intent with accuracy. It would be difficult for example, to say that ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a triumphant defence of mankind’s natural sociability. It is not. It is in fact a Hobbesian tale, positing that human beings are, in their nature, wild and brutish. Yet the main point is not really the children’s attempt at building a society descended into anarchy – that is an allegory. The main point is that society itself is constantly shadowed by the invisible claw of anarchy threatening to tear down the illusion of civilisation. The book is set against the backdrop of an atomic war. The barbarism displayed by the boys on the island is not the barbarism of teenagers, but of states. The society from which the boys come is involved in a nuclear contest, one in which WMDs kill millions of innocents. The boys were not the problem, human nature is. They could never create a peaceful replica of the society they came from as the society they came from was not itself peaceful. Curiously, the passage from the book you chose to reproduce in your article supports Birbalsingh’s argument – without the strict enforcement of rules, things fell apart quickly. Perhaps if the Conch rule had been enforced more strictly, Jack would have thought twice about suggesting harsher penalties for rule violations. In any case, it is not terribly relevant to Birbalsingh’s point, as again, Teachers are regulated by the government, fictional schoolboys setting up an island society are not.
    Finally, and I hope you do not think this unfair, but it is ironic that in a conversation circling the theme of the ‘Strong vs the Weak’, you, a popular twitter user with roughly three times the followers of Birbalsingh, quote-tweeted her to point out an embarrassing error, then wrote a blogpost straw manning her points, and devoted a third of the post to Lord of the Flies as a result of her error. You were right to delete the tweet, but sadly cannot delete the irony.

  32. Hi. I scrolled down through the comments waiting for someone to mention John Taylor Gatto and the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher ( and that what children learn most is school is not what teachers think they are teaching. The description of the petty micromanaging of children’s lives and behaviour by these ‘rules’ just makes my blood run cold. Children learn most from the way they are treated.

  33. This is staggeringly bad.

    It isn’t consistently enforcing a clear set of rules that is bullying and harassment and potentially oppressive.

    You open the door to harassment and bullying by having rules that are vague and enforcement that is arbitrary.

    This is why “the rule of law” is considered a good thing.

    You are correct that proportionality is important, but I only see it where the rules are stricter. Usually the punishment is not even close to fitting the crime.

  34. And a real Lord of the Flies where 6 boys were marooned on the island of Ata in 1965 for over a year turned out very differently because they all survived by fully cooperating and helping one another. They had rules but they were devised between them and relevant to their survival. There was conflict but it was contained and sorted by common sense and an innate will to survive unlike the plausible but fictional story of William Golding’s.
    They had come from a strict Catholic boarding School where they were apparently ‘bored witless’ (by pointless rules?) and they were attempting to escape when disaster and then good fortune struck! Full story @rcbregman and the Guardian. 9/5/2020.

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