Zero Tolerance and No Excuses, or Compassion and Learning?

As educators, it’s important we respond to the fact that we have in the UK a mental health crisis. Clearly, business as usual isn’t working for our young people. A plethora of deeply concerning  statistics from Young Minds exposes the scale of the growing problem, including the fact that we have seen a massive 68% increase in the numbers of teenagers admitted to hospital because of self harm over the past 10 years. One in three students in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health disorder and 95% of young offenders struggle with mental health.
This worrying national picture combined with some personal experience as a parent has changed the way I think about school discipline. It’s my view that schools need to develop, or fundamentally change in some (zero tolerance) cases, so that they become part of the solution for young people, rather than part of the problem. I’ve developed the scenario below to illustrate what I mean.

Imagine this.

Your dad moved out six months ago and your step dad moved in. You hate him. He can be really nasty when he drinks. A couple of weeks ago he grabbed both of your feet and pulled you down the stairs as you were escaping from him. You’d been disrespectful. The next day you told a school mate who saw your form tutor about it.

That night a social worker turned up at your house. You kept your eyes fixed firmly on the coffee table, but you could feel your step dad and mum glaring at you as they received their parenting advice. Step dad had to sign a family agreement stating that he wouldn’t use physical force against you ever again.

After that, neither your mum or step dad spoke to you for a full week – except to say that you had betrayed their trust and that if you opened your mouth ever again social services would take you away and put you in a children’s home. You swore you never would.

A knot now tightens in your gut and you keep getting headaches. Your mum tells you to stop complaining all the time; it makes the atmosphere at home horrid for everyone. Your step dad frowns at you as you pick at the breakfast you have no appetite for. You hear them talking about you in the kitchen – you’re a problem child.

Your real dad has a new family now so you only get to see him every other Saturday. No problem children there – they all seem really happy. All the time you’re at home, a sense of his absence overwhelms you. You’re remembering him now, instead of finishing your toast. The Queen numbers that used to accompany his splashy showers, the minty fresh smell of his aftershave, his sudden, loud laugh, his tight bear hug when you left for school. You try to stop because your eyes are stinging and your step dad is watching you.

Then he says it.

“No wonder your dad left. Living with a miserable little sod like you, it’s enough to drive anybody out.”

A switch flicks. You pick up your glass of milk and you throw it in his face. You catch a glimpse of his astonished expression as you scramble out of the house and tear down the road for school. Only when you’re through the gates, sides heaving and gasping for breath, do you dare look behind. He hasn’t followed you. Overwhelmed by relief, fear, shame, you sink to your knees and you sob. Huge, shuddering, gulping, unstoppable sobs.

Luckily, you haven’t been spotted because it’s early. By the time the bell goes your face is dry and nobody would know how you still churn inside.

You get to English and Sir is collecting the homework. Yours is still on the kitchen floor – in your bag.

“Ben, I’m really not impressed with your work ethic lately.”

Your class mates are watching. You stare at your desk. “Ben, can you look at me when I’m talking to you please. Thank you. Now what’s your excuse this time? The cat ate it?”

There are sniggers.

“The dog? It was stolen by aliens? Come on Ben, I’m waiting for an explanation.”

It happens again. The switch.

“Oh just get lost and leave me alone!”

And you run.

But what happens to you next depends entirely on your school’s culture…..where it sits on the social discipline window at the bottom of this post.



Sir rings SLT and you are found hiding in the toilets. You are taken immediately to isolation. Nobody talks to you because there are ‘no excuses’ for this type of behaviour. You are left to ‘reflect on your actions’ – the fact that you have let yourself and the school down. You actually reflect on what awaits at home. Meanwhile, your parents are contacted. Mum explains the terrible problems she’s also been having with you. You are put on SLT report and given a final warning.

You go home. Step dad has two reasons to be furious with you now. You lock yourself into the bathroom, you dismantle a razor and for the first, but sadly not the last time, you cut yourself. That night you cry yourself to sleep.


Sir rings SLT and you are found hiding in the toilets. Miss recognises that you need to calm down before matters can be resolved. You are taken to the cottages, a safe haven in your school for students who aren’t coping too well. Eventually, you are able to speak and you acknowledge that abusing a teacher was very wrong. You explain that it wasn’t really a choice you made though. It just happened and you’re sorry. Sir comes over at break and he accepts your apology. His kindness moves you – you’ve almost forgotten what it feels like.

Sir’s worried about you though – your reaction was so extreme. The support staff in the cottages are worried too. Your Head of House phones home. Mum explains the terrible problems she’s been having with you. She agrees with the suggestion that you are given a key-worker, somebody to talk to at school who can maybe get to the bottom of things, over time.

You meet your key-worker and she’s kind. You feel safer than you have for a long time. You feel as if you matter.

You go home. Step dad knows about the arrangement in school. The last thing he wants is some goody goody social worker fussing around again. He makes a bit of an effort. This staggers you. In a good way. You watch some of Britian’s Got Talent with him, rather than going to your bedroom as you normally would. Later, you fall straight to sleep for the first time in weeks.


The restorative school in this story is organised according to principles developed by Australian criminologist, John Braithwaite. His seminal thinking about punishment is captured in the ‘social discipline window’, above.

Braithwaite demonstrated how reliance on punishment as a social regulator is problematic because it shames and stigmatizes wrongdoers and fails to improve their behaviour. Worse, it pushes them further into a negative subculture, for reasons illustrated in Naithwaite’s equally important ‘compass of shame.’

In the story, Ben both withdrew and attacked self and we’ve all seen students occupy points on this compass when punished. The points are not, however, any of them good places to be and what I think Nathanson’s research invites us to consider much more seriously is the link between our behaviour management systems and mental health.

DfE guidance does of course already advise that we consider underlying causes – mental health – when we sanction students. But the notion that sanctions might simetimes cause the difficulty, or at least exacerbate it, is one that deserves careful consideration. With fragile young minds in our hands, and they are fragile because we now know that the  teenage brain undergoes dramatic change, we cannot afford to mess this up.



Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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