A school’s approach to internal disputes is a test of its commitment to justice, equity and peace. Jeremy Cunningham shows how schools can ensure ‘just’ disciplinary procedures, which are compatible with Human Rights Act, ECM and the Healthy Schools Standard, and can be applied across the school

Many teachers believe that young people are becoming more difficult and less deferential. This may be so, although we all have read quotes from different historical eras making exactly the same complaints. Public debate on school behaviour exclusions focuses largely on the powers of heads and the rights of the community and individual. The complex bureaucratic rules on exclusion make only implied reference to fundamental values. Day-to-day school behaviour policies too, are more likely to concentrate on slogans, rewards and sanctions without being explicit about the underlying value systems. Furthermore, there may be very different standards and assumptions applied to disputes and problems between adults, than to those involving students only or between students and adults.

Regimes of punishment

Any large community is bound to generate interpersonal problems, disputes, offences and even crimes. Most schools have a variety of formal and informal systems for dealing with them, for example discipline, grievance, competence, exclusion procedures, and behaviour policies. A traditional discipline model of ‘investigation-punishment’ may not comply with any fundamental principles of rights and responsibilities, and the potential for miscarriage of justice is fairly high. Its main advantage is its speed. In the past, classic school principles were: ‘no child can be trusted to tell the truth – all adults can be’; ‘better three innocent people be punished than one guilty one escape’; or ‘even if you are not guilty of this, there is bound to be something else you are guilty of’. Such approaches undermine school ethos and follow-on disputes and appeals can be time-costly.

‘Just’ framework

A school’s approach to disputes is a test of its commitment to justice, equity and peace. The framework I suggest here derives from my experiences in four varied comprehensive schools. It is compatible with the Human Rights Act, ECM and the Healthy Schools Standard and can be applied to disputes at all levels and ages.


  • The core principle is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Schools are not held to the highest level of proof – ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ – but to the civil standard which relies on ‘the balance of probability’.
  • Investigation should be led by someone who does not have a direct interest in the result. If possible, separate the judgement from the investigation in the same way that the police are separated from a trial.
  • Allow tempers to cool; emotional statements obscure the truth.
  • Assemble the facts carefully. Written statements from neutral, reliable witnesses are very important.
  • Ensure that any accused person has the opportunity to make a statement – in a serious case this should be in writing.
  • Keep a calm professional tone, showing no anger to any suspect.
  • Take extreme care over the use of moral pressure to obtain confession – people under stress are well known to make false confessions


  • An offence against a school code will almost always have resulted in the rights of others being violated, for example the right to property or the right to learn.
  • An apology, settlement or compromise may be reinforced by a symbolic gesture such as handshake or a written agreement.
  • Formal processes such as ‘restorative justice’ give a framework for victims to have a voice.
  • Resolution can be connected to various models of contract and a dispute or incident is best accepted by all parties as closed when it adheres to the basic principles of fairness and responsibility.


  • An individual injured party should not be ignored while the wheels of justice grind away.
  • It is easier to make direct repair for physical damage or for loss of time than for individual injury.
  • The school community can receive reparation for the time lost and damage caused to the whole community or individual.
  • Well-organised and well-supervised community service can not only benefit all, but can leave the offender with a sense of dignity and pride.
  • Long-term moral growth should take precedence over the desire for revenge.


  • ‘No one should be subjected to… degrading treatment or punishment’ (Article 3, European Convention on Human Rights).
  • ‘Degrading’ is open to interpretation – some people argue that community service is per se ‘degrading’. A school must be able to defend its choice of sanctions.
  • Some sanctions are designed purely for deterrence while others have elements of reparation and reform. It is useful to be clear about which is which.
  • Families have different codes and moral values, so some offences seem more serious than others. Parents often wish to impose their own sanctions, which may or may not be more severe than the school’s. Joint action or at least agreement on suitability of sanctions is desirable but not always attainable.
  • The law of diminishing returns applies to all sanctions no matter how severe they seem at first.


  • Good communication maintains the ethos and respect for the school code.
  • Do not forget any victim in the effort to put an offender on the right track. The impression can be given that the community cares more about the latter than the former.
  • Parents are key partners in the process – keep in close touch and be prepared to explain the principles behind a course of action.
  • It is sometimes necessary to speak to young people’s peers after an incident has been resolved to ensure that emotionally motivated versions of events do not prevail.

Building a positive school ethos involves more than wanting everyone to get on well together. There has to be a strong commitment to fundamental values. Using this framework puts concepts of rights and responsibilities into practice.

Jeremy Cunningham is former head of John Mason School, Oxfordshire. He is currently working with the Open University as an educational consultant. First published in Learning for Life, June 2007