There is a tradition called “muck-up day.” I don’t know when it started, but it seems to have taken root in many schools. At a school I used to work at there was no such tradition until one year a group of year 11 students decided that they would have themselves a muck up day.
It was a year group with a number of very difficult students. Generally the behaviour at the school was very good, but this group decided to buck the trend. On their last day, cheered on by the rest of the cohort, these students chose to run riot around the school; actively ignoring, disrespecting and taunting their class teachers and senior leaders.
To get to the school you have to walk from the main road through a public common and small park. When these students were finally ejected from the school, their rampage continued in this public space. They utterly ransacked it; eggs, flour, paint – rubbish everywhere. It looked like a warzone.
As teachers, this was pretty hard to stomach. How could these children, who had spent five years of their life here, do this to us? How could they so flagrantly disregard and disrespect the school and the teachers who had poured so much love, care, time and energy into their success? My colleagues and I all left that evening, down the path strewn with litter, with heavy hearts.
I got in early the next morning. As I walked back through that pack again for a second time, my mood had not been alleviated. At some point before the bell I received an email from SLT saying that we would have a rota of tutor groups going outside to clear up. Obviously they tried to sell it as our collective responsibility, but I knew to my year 7 tutor group it would feel like collective punishment – what did we do wrong? Why should we clear up this mess? How is this fair? Young people have a strong sense of justice, and I knew this would rile them.
I don’t remember how I sold it but it didn’t really matter; they would do what I told them. We were one of the first groups on the rota so we headed out to the front of the building. As we got to the front, I could see another couple of groups milling around directionless, their tutors either not knowing what was going on or talking to a member of SLT who seemed to be turning everyone back.
It turned out that, of their own accord, without asking anyone and without telling anyone, our sixth formers had gone outside to clear up the mess. They had taken some bin liners and, en masse, taken it upon themselves to deal with the havoc left behind by their younger peers.
I’m not an emotional person but this got to me. That in the space of 24 hours I could see the very best and the very worst that our young people have to offer. It was a very powerful moment. That in the light of such wanton and wilful disrespect our students could counter with purposeful dignity and responsibility – that will stick with me for a long time.
I don’t believe in collective punishment. I don’t think it’s fair and, most of the time it isn’t effective. But I do believe in collective responsibility. I believe that all of us in a school community are tied together indelibly. If one of us drops the ball, and it doesn’t matter if it’s trashing a public space or speaking out of turn in class, it is all of our responsibility. Not our fault, but our responsibility.
I don’t know what it is that means that within the space of two year groups you can have students who feel that responsibility deeply and ones who are utterly deaf to it. I’ve not been around long enough to know any more than the fact that it’s complicated. But, in my new school, this is an event I have discussed often with my tutor group. To what extent do we feel like a community? To what extent do we support each other? To what extent do we share a collective responsibility for behaviour? If we think that this is important, how do we strengthen it? We belong to a school community, and that belonging holds a deep moral responsibility over us.