Few issues have attracted such controversy, strong feelings and sharply divided opinions in Bracknell News lately as the behaviour policy at Brakenhale School.

Parents’ complaints led to a string of legitimate news stories last year. Those interviewed told us of children going hungry during short lunch breaks, coming home in tears, and being left in fear of detention for not having a pen.

But the stories also drew a response from parents who said they found the regime at Brakenhale was encouraging their children to become more responsible and confident. The News reported this too.

Yet earlier this month, head teachers at Bracknell’s secondary schools wrote to the News complaining that our coverage had been unfair.

The letter said rules such as those at Brakenhale were becoming ‘increasingly common practices’ at secondary schools across the country.

It’s certainly true that Brakenhale isn’t the only school to have faced media scrutiny in recent years after very similar complaints from parents and pupils.

Only last week almost 400 parents at Park House School in Newbury signed a petition demanding a change to rules that punish pupils for offences such as forgetting a pen or not having a transparent pencil case.

At Blaise School in Bristol, parents told local press the school had developed a ‘military feel’ – echoing what parents at Brakenhale told the News.

Just like at Brakenhale, parents said pupils had to walk silently in formation and line up for ‘roll call’ several times a day, while lunch time was shortened to just half an hour.

Both schools are managed by the same academy chain that manages Brakenhale – the Greenshaw Learning Trust. But Greenshaw isn’t alone.

Other trusts whose schools have come under fire for similar rules include Athena Learning Trust in Devon and Cornwall and Astrea Academy in Sheffield.

This approach has sometimes been described as having a ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’ culture.

The idea is that a focus on discipline and rigour will get the best out of children, while removing those who are disruptive from classrooms, and rewarding those who succeed.

Greenshaw Learning Trust turned down an invitation to explain its approach in an interview with the News.

But it did point to Brakenhale’s behaviour policy, which says the trust ‘believes that its schools have a responsibility to promote a culture that promotes excellent behaviour, ensuring that all pupils have the opportunity to learn in a calm, safe and supportive environment.’

The policy says pupils can be given detention for misbehaviour such as having a ‘lack of tools for learning, ‘poor appearance’ or for getting a second ‘strike’ on their ‘culture card’. This is a card pupils have to carry that teachers can mark for ‘negative behaviours’.

But it’s not all about punishment – rules are balanced out with a rewards system for good behaviour.

Cards can also be marked up for positive behaviour such as kindness. At the end of every lesson a teacher will award a pupil a golden ticket for good behaviour.

And students with ‘excellent’ behaviour can be invited to have ice cream, pizza, or hot chocolate and cake with the head teacher.

For some pupils, the approach seems to work. In praise for Brakenhale reported by the News last year, one parent said her daughter in year nine ‘loved’ the school. She said: “I believe Brakenhale and its strict rules have really helped her focus and I couldn’t be happier.”

An Ofsted monitoring visit in 2022 found behaviour policies were applied 'consistently well,' that sanctions are used appropriately, and pupils value rewards they receive.

But higher standards also come with a price. Paul Tatum, secretary of the Bracknell branch of the National Education Union, says ‘zero tolerance’ policies often lead to more children being suspended from school.

He told the News: “If you’re anywhere between the age of 11 and 16 forgetting your pen is a normal thing to happen.

“More pupils are going to inevitably fall on the wrong side of very high expectations.”

That certainly appears to be the case at Brakenhale, where the number of suspensions shot up by almost 200 as strict rules came into force with new head teacher Bhavin Tailor in 2021.

In a school of 1,217 pupils, there were 280 suspensions in the 2021-22 academic year – with at least 112 pupils being suspended more than once. That’s up from just 84 suspensions the year before, and 62 the year before that.

It’s also despite fact that in its most recent full Ofsted inspection, in 2019, Brakenhale had been marked ‘outstanding’ for behaviour. Greenshaw Learning Trust turned down the opportunity to comment. Ofsted's 2022 report still claimed rates of suspension were low.

Mr Tatum said the NEU is especially worried for those children who ‘fall through the gaps’ in zero-tolerance schools. He says children with special educational needs in particular may struggle.

He said: “The main issue we have as a union is that those children who don’t fit unto this – the rising exclusions, they fall through the gaps.

“If we’ve got young people that don’t feel that school’s a safe place then you’re causing issues for those individuals.

“If you feel the rules crush something inside you, because you have specific mental health requirements or special educational needs, then it will be the child’s mental health that will suffer.”

It’s a sobering thought and a reminder – to those on all sides of the debate – that at the heart of every story and controversy are children who’ll carry their time at school with them for the rest of their lives.