The Under-Governed Classroom

Competitive Control in The Classroom

Back in April 2008, I left a well-managed, highly successful secondary school in East London. We wanted to move to a smaller city with the family and I’d found a job at a school outside Norwich. The Norwich school had just gone into special measures when I arrived and it didn’t take long to work out why. It was the wild-west: a feral school. Some teachers were able to manage through personality. Some managed by tactically ignoring bad behaviour. 

There was a school-wide behaviour system, but it was applied inconsistently and changed often. There was a presumption that teachers who needed the school system of consequences were not planning engaging lessons. 

On top of that, we had high-stakes external inspections each half term.

I survived for three years before we academised, and we properly began repairing the school. The quality of my teaching during that period was poor

The school was an under-governed space. There were rules, but they were inconsistently applied, and the consequences were frequently waived. Teachers were warm and cared about their students. They planned decent lessons which were often undermined by disruptive behaviour. When a space is under-governed, there is competition for control. 

Teachers wanted control of their classrooms. Individuals and groups of students wanted control too. 

There is a theory, developed in the most challenging, under-governed spaces on the planet – the Mountains of Afghanistan, gang controlled areas in and around Kingston, Jamaica, Mogadishu – which can be adapted to explain the chaos of under-governed classes like mine were from 2008 to 2011. It’s called ‘competitive control theory.’

Competitive Control Theory

Competitive control as a mechanism for explaining how control is seized and maintained in under-governed spaces, was first proposed by Bernard Fall, a French resistance fighter during WWI and later a military thinker. The idea was more recently revived and developed by David Kilcullen in his book “Down from the Mountains” (an excellent read).

The model is simple. When a space is under-governed, those seeking power will use a spectrum of strategies to compete for control of the local population, from coercion to persuasion, from stick to carrot. 

Competitive Control

Often, coercion is through violence, but people can be coerced through other sanctions, including fines, detention and community service. Social disapproval can be a coercive sanction. Every successful leader or system uses some form of coercion: from atrocities to parking tickets. If it doesn’t, then sooner or later, someone else will. In the short term, coercion beats persuasion. 

Persuasion is also key for a stable, resilient system. A system without persuasion, rewards and success will only last while the population is in fear. Once the population believes it can, it will throw off a purely coercive system. 

Alongside this spectrum of methods of control, the controlling group needs to establish the rules of how and when the methods will be applied. When will an individual, family or group be rewarded? When will it be punished? Is it predictable? This is called the normative system – and it makes all the difference. It matters less what the rules are, than whether they are applied consistently. For example, the Taliban’s rule about women not appearing in the street without a blood relative is an effective rule that can be applied consistently. A rule about not running in class (a teacher rule) or not telling your classmate (a pupil rule) can also be effective. 

Competitive Control can explain what was going wrong in my classroom. 

Applying the Model to Schools


Coercion in schools has negative connotations. Coercion can have negative effects, but that is only once facet. All teachers use sanctions to encourage approved behaviours and these are coercive. Pupils also use coercion to encourage behaviours they want in their peers – whether this behaviour is positive or negative. Coercion is not in itself a bad thing – the impact and the purpose matter. 

Class teacher Pupils
Teachers use coercion to manage classroom behaviours – from a stern look and a phone call home to detention and exclusion. Pupils may use coercion to encourage behaviours of their peers and the teacher including:

  • threats of violence
  • reporting the teacher; 
  • withdrawing peer approval. 

It is possible for individual pupils to threaten, and carry out, far more effective and extreme coercive measures than teachers can. 


At the ‘carrot’ end of the spectrum, persuasion describes the promised positive outcomes individuals can expect when they follow the rules. 

Class teacher Pupils
Persuasion outcomes in the classroom include:

  • teacher approval;
  • positive phone calls home
  • academic success
Pupils predominantly use social approval outcomes as tools of persuasion although other concrete outcomes may also be promised. 

Normative System – the Rules

The promises, positive and negative, mean nothing if they are not followed through with consistency. Your pupils will comply with any rules, yours or other pupils, as long as the outcomes are predictable and consistent. This is the easiest part for a teacher to get wrong.

A successful teacher will use coercion and persuasion and deploy a normative system of rules to maintain control and optimise learning. 

Limits of the model

The model was developed to apply to any population where there is competition for control, from a slum to a city and from a mountain valley to a classroom. It describes the characteristics of spaces under stable control and of spaces where competition for control leads to chaotic, unstable environments. 

However, it is a cold model: there is no human warmth. The relationships between individuals has to be inferred from the methods of persuasion and coercion and the trust that the ruled will be enforced and followed. 

In addition, the motivations of the participants in the model is not explicit. We hope that the teacher wants control for the legitimate reasons of pupil learning and progress (though it is likely to be more complex than that). The reason why pupils might want to control the space is opaque.

Finally, the model does not suggest how we deal with reconciliation and restitution – welcoming the insurgent back into the fold sometimes multiple times per day. 

Nevertheless, I find the model of competitive control revealing when applied to the classroom. It explains the role of coercion, which I have always been uncomfortable about, but recognised as a necessity. I am wary of applying a model developed in violent, unstable and often war-like situations to a classroom, but as Kilcullen observes, this theory isn’t really a theory of warfare, it is a theory of everything.

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