Charter: A Draconian Term - and a Draconian School?

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, a high school in a UK  coastal town, a crackdown on poor behaviour   has begun, in an attempt, according to  new headteacher Barry Smith, to improve the school’s admittedly poor GCSE exam results, which recently saw just 30% of students achieving A-C passes.

Some of the measures certainly are simply discipline, meant to instil good manners and ensure safety, such as walking in single file in corridors.  Others, however, cross the line into emotional abuse – telling children who “mumble” or “speak too quietly” that they are “selfish, and wasting other peoples’ time” – while the denial of pupils’ right to leave the classroom to go to the toilet, and forcing them to vomit into buckets in the classroom, rather than being allowed to leave, along with the in-my-absence expectation that pupils will be in bed by 9pm, asleep by 9.30pm, and awake by 6.30am, carry definite shades of the sort of domination that should only be happening in consenting, adult relationships where both parties are mutually exploring a BDSM dynamic.    I should know: I’ve been part of that world: my role was, and sometimes still is, as a Sadist.  However, one of the things I won’t do (though many others will) is humiliate people – not even consenting adults who want to be humiliated and shamed.

Barry Smith is humiliating and dominating children.  Telling someone they are selfish and a time waster if they don’t speak as you would wish them to doesn’t “teach discipline” – it teaches shame, and it teaches those children that they don’t have the right to speak. It teaches them that no one wants to hear what they have to say, that what they have to say has no worth or value.  It teaches them to become adults who avoid confrontation, who never voice an opinion, who consistently fail at job interviews, for example, because they can’t communicate their value – because they don’t believe they have any.

I know: I was mocked by teachers for “speaking too quietly” when I was at school (not Great Yarmouth Charter Academy). In my case, speaking too quietly at school arose from being criticised at home, by my mother, for “yapping on and on, making so much noise, when all people want to do is relax.”  As an adult, I speak freely and unselfconsciously to my wife, and one long-term friend.  Otherwise? I don’t speak unless I have to. I communicate in writing where possible, and I become extremely anxious about situations where I do have to speak: I fall apart in job interviews.   It doesn’t help that I have an auditory processing impairment, a cognitive issue related to the schizophrenia I also have to live with: I often “take too long” to answer questions, or respond to points made, because I’m still trying to catch up to an understanding of what was actually said.

Barry Smith requires pupils to cross their arms when listening to teachers: a defensive body posture, the insistence on which suggests that he would like to be allowed to hit the young people in his care, and, that not being an option, is going to push the emotional and mental violence against them as far as he can.  He also requires that they make eye contact – one girl was told that, if she couldn’t do so, she could leave the school.   I can’t maintain eye contact without getting panicky and stressed, and wanting to lash out. My wife, who is on the autism spectrum, becomes very anxious, and begins to stammer badly if she is  forced into making eye contact.  It’s not a “don’t want to” or “can’t be bothered to” – as with most neurodiverse individuals, it is physical and psychological agony to do so.

I have no problem with genuine discipline: I think school uniforms are a good idea, as long as they are made affordable for parents of all income levels.   I have no problem with people being punished, reasonably and appropriately, for not being on time to lessons, or for not paying attention during lessons.

But I have a lot of problems with adults who seem to harbour a hatred of children and young people.  I have a lot of problems with the fact that, across social media, an awful lot of the comments supporting Barry Smith come from women – comments on the lines of “It’s just about getting good results”,  “Discipline is necessary, people need to get over this ‘children are precious’ nonsense”,  “Kids have too many rights – they need to be taught hard lessons like this.”   I worry for the children of those people, because I know what abuse, even when it’s “only” emotional abuse, can do.

School is meant to create functional human adults, who can thrive in the adult world they will leave school to step out into.  Young people who have been kept in an atmosphere of enforced silence, where no one is allowed to create noise or nuisance, are ill-equipped to deal with the real world, where people don’t sit still, in complete silence, to allow you unimpeded concentration.   In most workplaces, noise and movement and distraction are constant: phones ring, people are talking over each other, people are getting up and moving back and forth.  In the past, I’ve had to take a phone call from a client while two colleagues were having a stand up row, complete with fists slamming onto desks, choice language, and things being thrown, across the room.   I’ve had to conduct a phone conversation while a manager hurled files at a junior staff member who’d screwed up.   And even on ‘normal’ days, I’ve had to get on with the work I was being paid for – which was often of a financial nature – to the background of ten different conversations going on at once, phones ringing, people crossing back and forth, people shrieking with laughter, computers doing the “you’ve got mail!” ping, managers having loud, angry phone calls…  Discipline isn’t just about being told not to do things: discipline is also about being enabled to focus and function in spite of distractions, in spite of noise, in spite of sometimes intolerable behaviour.

I worry for the futures of the young people at Barry Smith’s Charter Academy. I worry that they will emter the adult world utterly unprepared for the sheer noise of it, that they will find themselves sacked from jobs as they struggle to manage their workload in an environment full of distractions Mr. Smith ensured they never encountered in their apprenticeship to adulthood, which is what a good school experience should be. I worry that there will be people with brilliant, creative, genuinely game-changing ideas who will never see those ideas come to fruition, who will never be given the opportunity to fully explore the bounds of their creativity, because they were taught as children that they’re “selfish time wasters” with no right to speak.

Exam success doesn’t correlate at all to personal success. Often, it doesn’t even correlate to financial success – I was among the top five percent for exam performance at my high school: to date, I’ve never been paid more than £12,000 a year – not even half the mean average salary in the UK.  I’ve never had the job I wanted, and, if I’m honest, I probably never will – because I can’t see how to get from where I am to where I want to be. Because I daren’t talk to people.  Barry Smith may well be condemning a generation of young people to a future like mine – and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, however much I disliked them.

When we see young people as a nuisance, to be controlled, we’re expressing our fear that we, as adults, aren’t good enough: we’re afraid of the energy, the ideas, the vitality, of these young people, and so, to stop them expressing that energy, to stop them exploring those ideas, to stop them potentially taking our place, we humiliate them, abuse them, destroy their spirit, crush their ambition, all in the name of “discipline”, all in the name of “not letting them get above themselves.”   I hate that expression, by the way: as human beings, as sentient creatures capable of abstract thought, our aim should be to “get above” ourselves – all progress comes, in the beginning, from arrogance, from people “getting above themselves”.

Young people will become adults, whether you want them to or not, however much you try and shut them down, break them, shame them, control them, silence them.  And those adults will take over the world, no matter how hard you cling to your positions of influence and privilege.

Yes, the Bible tells us that “to spare the rod is to spoil the child” – an exhortation to abuse that has led many young people away from the Christianity they were raised in.  But that same Bible also tells parents to “not exasperate their children.”  The spirit of all discipline is reasonableness.  Even in BDSM, a good Dom, a good Sadist, will make it possible for their submissive to “get it right”, to please them, without taking that person’s spirit from them in the process.  When we break someone, as Barry Smith seems hellbent on doing with the young people he has authority over, we are obliged to put them back together as a better, stronger version of themselves.  In BDSM, reputations live and die by attention to aftercare, to whether a Sadist or a Dom is creatively destructive and attentive to the welfare, needs, and potential of their submissives, or simply abusive.  The vanilla world would do well to take a few leaves from that particular book.


Ashley Ford-McAllister

School of hard knocks, university of life, saved by the love of a good woman. Freelance writer with a background in financial services, and lived experience of mental health issues. Musical tastes range from Mozart to Meatloaf. Resident of Lowestoft, UK.