‘EXERCISE A GENTLE DISCIPLINE’ is a phrase often heard amongst Quakers. It may be used in reference to matters as diverse as the conduct of our Business Meetings or the wording of funeral notices.

It works, perhaps one might say, because we are raised to it. But note the character of a raising from which we learn through experience that some degree of restraint and order is necessary, both for ourselves and those who share our lives and spaces if things are to go well and productively for us all.

That is where the gentleness comes in. Without it, the benign and empathetic element of the commonality which we all have to learn and make our own, is lost as domination and punishment become both the means and the end. Children will model what they see. Only look at the lives and utterances of those who who have never learned this. Many of them rule us. And their behaviour is surely proof enough that rule is not governance. This is a desperate lesson to teach our children.

Our young people have had a terrible year. Bernadette Meaden’s comment piece Thank you to a great generation, recognises and praises the diligence and responsibility they have overwhelmingly displayed in circumstances which have floored many of their elders.

Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, should read this piece and reflect upon it. He has recently delivered himself of a call for “cracking down” on returning school pupils which would be comical if it did not carry so much potential to damage an already wounded and let down cohort of children and young people.

Maybe Williamson has not felt – as most of us have at times over this past year – afraid, angry, anxious, betrayed, disoriented, despairing. Add your own experiences. If we, as adults, have sometimes been driven to our knees, what does he think may have happened in the psyches of children and adolescents? And as I have heard teachers say over and again, a child who ‘kicks off’ in the classroom is very often simply at the end of their tether. Consider this from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and wonder at Williamson’s obtuseness.

Apparently unable to recognise the Golden Rule espoused by most of the world’s religions: “What would be hateful to you, do not do to another”, and with it, Jesus’ down-to-earth rider on specks and planks, the Secretary of State homes in on mobile phones and noisy corridors as the evils that must be crushed as children return to school. Not content with leaving these judgements to the teachers who know the children and their circumstances far better than he does, Williamson also seems to have forgotten this incident  and to be deaf to the pre-lockdown volume of hooting and bawling common on the green benches, to say nothing of the bullying to which many MPs, particularly women, are subject. Until MPs, as well as children, “…have been taught how to behave well and are clear about what is expected of them”, he might do well to wind his neck in. But an Education Secretary who chooses to be photographed with a large whip on this desk does not advertise thoughtfulness, humility or empathy.

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Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen

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