Can you be too well-behaved?

One of the many things (we hope) which impresses visitors to St Margaret’s is the excellent behaviour of our classes and the high standard of discipline evident in so many of our activities. Disciplined behaviour is a key ingredient in effective learning, in that it contributes to a calm and harmonious atmosphere wherein pupils show respect for each other and for the teaching and support staff with whom they share their daily school lives. The original Latin “disciplina”, “training” is linguistically and conceptually related to “discipulus”, “pupil”. Self-discipline is a pre-requisite of focused study and successful time management. To learn, pupils must have time to listen and be listened to, to read and think, to create and to ask questions, as much to provoke and challenge as simply to find out. Knowing and accepting clear behaviour boundaries are what keep the party polite. A disciplined mind is not a regimented mind, but one which is able to analyse, evaluate and question, in a logical and, we hope, an ultimately constructive manner.

It has recently been suggested that while girls who comply with and “work within existing authority structures” (TES 16/05/17) achieve academic success (more so than boys at the same stages, who are often slower to settle to study), when they reach the wider world and the workplace they experience a culture shock in an aggressive, competitive environment for which they are not fully prepared. Men on the other hand rise higher and earn more. The implication is that naughty boys who don’t completely fall by the wayside, are more successful in the workplace as they learn to question authority though bad behaviour at school.

We are only too well aware of statistics which show girls outstripping boys at exams but falling behind in career development and salary as they move into the adult world. The glass ceiling is alive and well, notwithstanding a number of high profile exceptions to the generalisation. The possible reasons for this are many and varied, and it is beyond the remit of schools to second guess all the different ramifications of gender politics later in life.  

In girls’ schools we are all too aware of the need to expose the girls to the outside world in as many ways as are appropriate to their ages and stages of development. One way is through competition in debating and Model United Nations, through STEM in the pipeline, maths challenge, Modern Languages spelling bees, the junior Shakespeare festival and so on. Our girls tackle the same physical challenges as boys through our triennial trekking challenge (last one in Tanzania, next one in Botswana) and every year at every level in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, where at St Margaret’s we have a huge uptake. We also offer all our girls the opportunity to assume all leadership roles in the school, and this is so much a part of our life here that  girls take it for granted that they can be successful leaders and role models; we hope this confidence will stand them in good stead for later life. We encourage girls to speak their minds and offer advice about school improvement through the pupil council. This happens from their earliest years. They don’t need to behave badly to make an impact. They learn that a reasoned argument, tact and politeness, matched with self-confidence and a steely resolve are often the best ways to proceed with any critique. These are tools for any workplace. We must not forget either that not all girls want to be power players and it is not our intention to direct any child into any straightjacket. Girls have to be what they want to be, and we try to offer them the space to grow in the direction they choose. 

Academic achievement is a measure of success for young people, both boys and girls, at a time when their confidence needs all the bolstering it can get. This is especially true today when there are unprecedented levels of angst and mental illness in the teenage population as a whole. Qualifications open doors to the next stage, and they can’t do without them. Helping our girls achieve what they need is up to us. What they do with them is up to them. We see it as our responsibility to ensure that throughout their school careers, we do challenge girls in the same proportion as we support them, to foster the drive and ambition to seek out  opportunities and make the most of them. Good behaviour doesn't equate to a passive acceptance of the status quo but it does oil the wheels of community life.

Ms W. Main

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