The Silverton Papers
Supporting the claim that it’s the schools that have the strictest discipline that have the highest mental health problems
Two days ago, I posted about The Times Education Commission. Specifically, I referred to a claim by journalist Kate Silverton that “It’s the schools that have the strictest discipline that have the highest mental health problems.” I asked for evidence to support this claim and expressed scepticism that any would be produced.
To Silverton’s credit, she followed up with two Twitter threads, causing me to update my original post. After people began to point out that the first of these threads contained no links or references, Silverton posted the second thread listing 11 papers. One of the links is broken, so there were 10 that could be analysed.
Most of the papers do not address mental health in any way. Instead, they tended to focus on suspensions and exclusions. I suppose it is possible to assume the ‘strictest’ schools use a disproportionate amount of suspensions and exclusions, but it’s equally possible to assume the opposite - by addressing poor behaviours early, they prevent issues escalating to this level.
Even so, the evidence presented on suspensions and exclusions was familiar - these sanctions are associated with worse outcomes for those who are suspended and excluded. This is not a surprise and we should not assume suspensions and exclusions cause these outcomes. A student who is violent is more likely to be excluded from school and more likely to encounter the criminal justice system. It’s the source of the violent behaviour that is the root cause. Similarly, it’s easy to accept that suspension and exclusion are associated with higher rates of depression without assuming suspension and exclusion are the cause.
The other issue such papers rarely take into account is the effect on peers. Suspension and exclusion may be bad for the perpetrators but a relief for their classmates.
Silverton did, however, post a paper showing a link between high levels of suspensions and exclusions and lower academic performance among the peers of those excluded. This comes as a result of some complicated statistical modelling and it’s hard to imagine a mechanism for why this would be the case other than that, in the district in question, schools with more suspensions and exclusions were more disorderly. It’s also possible to find papers demonstrating the opposite effect eg that suspensions and exclusions improve the maths performance of peers. I suspect the picture is a complex one related to more school culture factors than can be captured simply by the numbers of suspensions and exclusions.
One paper Silverton posted suggested that students are more likely to respond well to rules they find fair and legitimate, which seems reasonable, but a few of the papers were a bit weird. Frankly, none of them properly addressed Silverton’s original point about the ‘strictest’ schools and mental health, but there was a paper about the presence of metal detectors, security cameras and so on, and then there were these;
Kate Silverton @katesilvertonMaimon, D., Antonaccio, O., & French, M. T. (2012). Severe sanctions, easy choice? Investigating the role of school sanctions in preventing adolescent violent offending. Criminology, 50(2), 495–524. https://t.co/yXqb2Q5022
Kate Silverton @katesilvertonMatjasko, J. L. (2011). How effective are severe disciplinary policies? School policies and offending from adolescence into young adulthood. Journal of School Psychology, 49(5), 555–572. https://t.co/F9LPai4VYL
Finally, the last paper Silverton posted seems to undermine her argument. It’s not about mental health, but if we assume Silverton is against strict discipline policies, why post a paper demonstrating evidence in favour of them?
This is from the summary:
“The results of hierarchical logistic regression models indicated that the effects of peer smoking, drinking, and fighting on corresponding respondent delinquency were attenuated in schools with strict sanction policies for smoking, drinking, and fighting, respectively. Thus, strict sanction policies deterred student misconduct by reducing the crime-inducing effects of having delinquent peers.”
It’s possible that there is some nuance I have missed. It’s also possible that Silverton is not in complete command of her brief and cannot really substantiate her original claim. Which is fine and forgivable. We are all human and flawed.
What is less forgivable is when institutions like The Times elevate media personalities above teachers and seek their voices over ours when discussing the job that we do.