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'Behaviour sanctions are set by teachers, not politicians'

The reality of a school behaviour system is a million miles away from political talk of writing lines, says Geoff Barton

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The reality of a school behaviour system is a million miles away from political talk of writing lines, says Geoff Barton

There are a number of reasons why 1976 was a memorable year. It served up a long, hot summer of ice cream vans and frayed tempers. The first Concorde flight took off. The Cod War between Iceland and the UK finally ended. And Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses For Me became the biggest-selling song of the year. Never such innocence again.

And 1976 was the year that something changed in education. In October, the new prime minister, James Callaghan, gave his famous Ruskin speech in which he questioned whether the amount spent on education was delivering the skills and knowledge UK society needed.

It was the moment when politics and education began their long slow process of entwinement – a narrative that, in the UK at least, we now take for granted. As Fiona Millar reminds us in her excellent new book, The Best for My Child: “Issues like local school organisation, the curriculum, standards and teaching style were generally seen as off limits for national politicians.”

How quaint that seems this week when the secretary of state for culture – not education, thankfully – is quoted as saying: “Headteachers across the UK should ban mobile phones in the classroom” – a view being endorsed today by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector in a speech at the Wellington College Festival of Education.

Advance coverage of her speech revealed that she was due also to say: “We expect heads to put in place strong policies that support their staff in tackling poor behaviour. And I think it’s entirely appropriate to use sanctions, such as writing lines, ‘community service’ in the school grounds – such as picking up litter – and school detentions.”

All of this is presented as if people on the outside of schools and colleges know best how our schools should be run. The reality is that education leaders – the people I represent and the hundreds I meet and talk to every month – are, unsurprisingly, well aware that good pupil behaviour is the foundation of good learning.

So, let’s start with the red herring of banning mobile phones. What is actually meant by "banning" them? It is unenforceable to prohibit them from being brought on to school premises – short of conducting a daily bag search – and parents also want their child to have a phone in case of emergency or a last-minute change of plans.

Some school leaders take the view that those phones should remain in bags and out of sight during the school day. Some allow them to be used in break times. But I would be surprised if any school allows pupils to use them in lessons for texting, social media and the like. Instead, the focus will be on paying attention to classroom learning.

But as educators, we also have a responsibility to prepare young people for the real world. And in some lessons, on some occasions, legitimising pupils using their phone as a calculator, googling a concept in science, taking a photograph of this week’s homework assignment, may be precisely the productive ways that we would want young people to deploy a technology that opens up learning.

And that decision – when mobile technology may be appropriate – is for school leaders to decide, not for politicians and officials to pontificate about.

School leaders know best

Education leaders will feel similarly irritated when they hear talk of taking a "tough stance" on behaviour. Like me, they will have hoped that we had left behind the machismo language of the Sir Michael Wilshaw era of inspection. What is important is what is effective – not an Ofsted- approved list of sanctions – and this is again a matter for the professional judgement of school leaders.

In the hundreds of schools and colleges I visit, I see behaviour that is far better than when I was at school. They model the forms of decent, civilised conduct which we would want to inculcate in our own children – young people behaving well because that’s what human beings do, through expectations of courtesy, mutual respect, explaining things rather than barking orders.

Sadly, there’s a growing cohort of people beyond our schools – in government, in agencies, in thinktanks – publishing reports, dishing up advice, telling the people who run our schools why they’re not doing it well enough, why they’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

This has to stop. Because unless you’ve worked in a school and had the responsibility for teaching 30 young people a subject that is new to them, while trying to meet the crushing weight of our accountability system, then you’re unlikely to understand the nuances behind what goes on day in and day out.

You’ll not see the corridor conversations between staff and pupils, the endless understated but essential interactions, the clearly defined and elegantly enforced expectations of dress code, courtesy, turn-taking and eye-contact – the intangible but essential ingredients in creating a civilised school ethos.

This is all a million miles away from talk of toughness or strictures on phone banning.

We really must celebrate more the ecosystem of being a teacher in a classroom, being a leader, and knowing that the responsibility to develop the attitudes and values of the next generation belongs to you.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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