Headmaster’s Assembly – 21 February 2020

Is Consistency and Fairness the same thing?

“Nothing demotivates people like the equal treatment of unequals.”

Joe Kraus

One of the things I was taught when starting out my life as a teacher was to be fair and consistent in my treatment of young people, particularly when it came to punishment or consequence. If two people did the same thing, then they were each to have the same consequence because that was being fair and was being consistent. These concepts were, in effect, synonyms.

Over time I have changed my mind on this matter because I now see a difference between the concepts of “fairness” and “consistency”. To be consistent means to act in the same way – always. To be fair means to treat people equally but without discrimination. Both of these definitions came from the dictionary and seem so similar yet I have come to distinguish between the two in my leadership and try to practise fairness as opposed to consistency. I see a subtle difference I wish to explain by means of example.

Let us say two boys are caught smoking together at school – one in Form V and one in Form II. Same offence – what of the consequence? Should there be a difference because the older boy should know better? And if the older boy was a prefect, should he, in addition to a sanction, have as another consequence his leadership suspended? I happen to think that the two are indeed different and should be treated differently despite the offence being identical.

In another scenario, two boys get sent to my office because they behaved badly. For arguments’ sake, let us say they were both rude to their teacher after not doing a piece of work and said exactly the same thing in the same circumstance. The situations were identical – or were they? Any good leader ask the question “why” a lot and so I question both boys separately on the reason for their outburst. The one boy said he forgot to do his work because he watched Netflix and was cross with the teacher for catching him out. He was more upset with being caught than by his being in trouble. The other boy said he also didn’t do his work because he has sports practice at school until 18:00 and his transport home didn’t arrive. It took him three hours to get home after which his mother insisted he do his chores. He planned on doing the work in the morning but overslept as a result of his late night. Are these two equal and should they be getting the same consequence? Consistency says “yes”, Fairness says “no”.

People often use the phrase “the punishment must fit the crime”. I tend not to agree because to act like that implies only consistency and not fairness. The punishment must fit the circumstance.

Each of us came in to this hall today with a different story. We slept differently last night, ate differently. Some of you argued with your parents on the way to school, some of you read a book or listened to music. Some of you are in a really good space right now and are happy, some less so. Some are dealing with breakups or difficult relationships, some have just started a new relationship and it is beautiful. Some of you are dreaming of your next holiday overseas, some of you are worrying if your parents are ever going to get a job. With human beings, there are so many differences, there are so many stories, Each of us has our unique story and brings that story with us wherever we go. We take our stories with us in to classrooms, halls and social gatherings. So if we are all so different, how can we possibly treat everyone the same? Surely fairness beats consistency in dealing with people?

“Consistency means treating all [people] equally. Fairness means treating each [person] appropriately, and individually, based on the circumstances and contribution of that [person].

Fairness depends on something external, such as circumstances, situations, performance or contribution. Consistency depends on nothing but conformity to an existing standard. Consistency requires good records. Fairness requires the application of good judgment. Consistency is easy, fairness is harder.”

Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden: “Contented Cows MOOve Faster.”

This debate can be applied in the bigger picture particularly as we debate the concept of privilege, whether it be as a result of our race, gender or social circumstances. The debate can take place in families with parents who deal with different ages of children and whether to apply the same consequence to all children despite some being older and supposedly wiser.

I try to apply the principle of fairness at school when dealing with you. I try to take the context into consideration and what you brought in to the room. I try to take your age and awareness of wrong into consideration. You must understand though that not only does this work to help some boys have a reduced consequence as a result of circumstance, but it can cause a boy to have a greater consequence because of his status. And I must also warn that this does not mean you have an excuse for poor behaviour at all!

The purpose of discipline is not to punish but to change behaviour. How can we possibly change behaviour if we don’t take individual circumstance in mind when meting out consequence?

My job is to lead this organisation and to inspire people. If I sacrifice fairness for consistency you lose faith in me as someone who doesn’t try to understand each of you and your own stories.

You too will lead one day – many of you already do. Think carefully about what is fair when you deal with people. There is nothing wrong with choosing fairness over consistency.