Every school and every organisation has rules and policies. Indeed, the very world of policies has gone mad. At last count, we had a set of around one hundred and fifty policies, mostly dictated by Government, but also historical to this school, which have become the bane of management lives, and not least the life of the Vice Master, who is heroic in their upkeep. We at Bedford School also have a much smaller number of school rules, which we have updated recently, partly because they are old and tired, but partly because we were keen to rid ourselves of some of the policies. In the last remodelling over Christmas, Dr Koch brilliantly managed to get rid of no fewer than eleven policies by incorporating only a few extra words into the rules. You might enjoy this list of policies which no longer exist and which you probably never knew existed in the first place. They are: The Earrings and Piercings Policy, Knives Policy, Mobile Phone Policy (US), Personal Music Player Policy, Property Policy, Public Displays of Affection Policy, Bounds Policy, Leave of Absence Policy, Bicycle Policy, Driving for Boarders Policy, Driving to School Policy. I strongly suggest, as a matter of diplomatic policy, that you do not say the word “policy” within earshot of the Vice Master.
But today I want to talk about rules for five minutes. Different schools take different approaches to rules. My last school in Oxford took perhaps the most interesting: there was only one, single, school rule: “All boys must behave sensibly and well at all times”. That single line had particular beauty to it: firstly you simply can’t argue with it; and secondly the teachers can interpret “sensibly and well” however they like. As Deputy Head in charge of discipline, I rather appreciated that; though admittedly it did lead to some amusing intellectual debate, which, against the background of the dreaming spires of the University to which most families were connected, could be rather tricky. We do ourselves, though, have something rather similar. Bedford School rule number one says: “Boys should always conduct themselves with good manners, respect, courtesy and kindness towards all both in term time and out of it”. What a lovely rule – and easy for us all to sign up to that.
But beyond that, what is the point in rules? Well it seems to me that our rules break down broadly into three themes: rules to keep you healthy and safe; rules that keep you within the law; and rules that conform to society’s expectations. It is hard to argue much with the first two; they are relatively easy to define and, whether or not you believe in being told, for instance, not to smoke, you can at least see the point in their existence. The last type – rules which conform to society’s expectations – are not always so easy to bear. Why should my hairstyle be “conventional neat and tidy”? Why should I be clean shaven? Why should I not use my mobile phone in the dining halls? Why should I not eat in corridors? Why should school rules apply outside school as well as inside it? Indeed, any rules about appearance can get people’s backs up – the most peculiar and astonishing meeting I ever had involved a family at one of the schools I taught who refused to cut their son’s extremely long hair. We sat for a tense hour, about half of which was in silence, with them refusing to cut, and I refusing to bend the rules for him. The upshot, which still seems amazing to me, was that the parents, rather than cutting the hair, withdrew their son from the school altogether.
Well, the fact is this: politeness and a smart appearance matter both inside this school and away from it – you might as well get used to that and I am going to illustrate this from my own experience. It is becoming the norm now in business for interviewers to undergo unconscious bias training, so that interviewers can see past such frivolities as what a person is wearing to the real person below. The idea is to avoid snap judgments. It is hard to argue against this, and we should all be aware of unconscious bias; we should all try our hardest not to read a book by its cover.
However, like it or not, it does matter how you look and how you conduct yourself. If you turn up to an interview for the majority of jobs in jeans and a ripped t-shirt, slouch in your chair, then open up a supermarket sandwich halfway through and start munching, it does not matter how good your answers are – you won’t get the job. Pride in appearance and good manners on their own say something about someone; the politically correct can argue that they only speak of good breeding, but the reality is that most people (if they have any sense) respond emotionally as well as objectively when interviewing others for jobs, and you need to make sure that the impression you give is professional and courteous.
Which takes us back to school rules. At the end of the day, all rules are designed to be educational. They teach you how to look after yourself and conduct yourself in a way that you will need later in life. If you will need to look smart in formal settings later on, then let’s get used to it now. There is no need to resent the existence of school rules; they are simply common sense.