Controversy as DfE declares children 'should behave' in lessons

2nd February 2014 at 20:58

Next week, the Department for Education launches revised guidelines on managing behaviour in schools and classrooms. With no new powers to be announced, there are bigger edu-stories in the news cycle. But the reaction has been interesting, and perhaps reveals why there are still problems with the way we tackle behaviour in this country.


You see, for the most part, schools already possess enough powers to run a civil institution. The LEGO bricks of behaviour management are, for the most part, very straightforward. Set clear expectations of behaviour; patrol those expectations with sanctions and deterrents; maintain the borders consistently, and throughout the whole school; reward and encourage everyone who meets the expectations. It's a system that is as simple as sighing, and has a pedigree from the days of Noah. As Jeremy Bentham said, "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." It isn't complicated, nor does it encapsulate the whole of human experience, but as a shorthand for human motivation, it's powerful.


The idea of sanctioning against behaviour we're seeking to discourage, and rewarding that which is good, would appear to be uncontroversial. But the chattering classes can find offence in the smile of a kitten, and here are some of the reactions provoked by today's news:

1. Detentions don't work.


My gut reaction is THEY WORK FOR ME, MISTER, but on a more practical level, they do work. For the vast majority of students, detentions, and other forms of sanctions, deter, on the simple premise that students would rather be happy than uncomfortable, and if the sanctions are less pleasant than the spoils of misbehaviour, most students are smart enough to do the arithmetic and work out which option gets them back to their Xboxes the fastest. Some pupils are adamantine, and can endure any privation at school, but that's why special provision exists. Such pupils need and deserve more than mainstream environments can offer. 

2. Good behaviour is grown from the soil of great lessons.


This is one of the most common myths in education, and I'm happy to take it down with a head shot whenever I can. While it's certainly true that a boring lesson, or a teacher who is unprepared, vicious, obsequious, ignorant, can exacerbate poor behaviour, it is simply untrue to suggest the reverse: that a great lesson will cause good behaviour — although it can encourage it., But on a more fundamental level, good behaviour is practically axiomatic to good learning; without the former you cannot have the latter, and to Hell with anyone who thinks that a noisy classroom can be a great place to learn. Plus, learning is often hard graft, and we can't make everything gripping at all times. Therefore, students simply have to get used to the fact that, even if they aren't constipated with excitement at the lesson topic or delivery, they don't have the right to tell the teacher to stick it up their a*se. 

3. I misbehaved, and I did OK.


I'm sure that the history of education is littered with people who could beat a tattoo of defiance on the cheeks of their backsides at their teachers, and still make the podium at the GCSE Olympics. But most kids don't. For most kids, mucking about means missing lessons, and if you're poor, or home life doesn't support your learning in other ways, that's it — game over: do not exceed your demographic.


4. Sanctions of any sort are tyrannical: why do you hate children so much?


When someone says this to me, I feel like smiling at them while I  press the red button under the counter. If you think that good behaviour is obtained only through varying levels of love then I fear you have little grasp of the world beyond the monastery. 


5. Poor behaviour is a symptom of broader sociological processes, and to deal with it at the pupil level is to commit an act of oppression by colluding with the superstructure of injustice.


The moment you treat a child as a helpless vehicle of his circumstances you strip him of dignity. Understanding the background of a child doesn't preclude firm boundaries. In fact, children from dislocated, fractured home lives full of poverty and want often need — and appreciate — structured learning at school, if none exists at home. Also, I'm a teacher: I can't fix society. But I can have high expectations for all my students, rich or poor. 


Now if intelligent, articulate adults capable of using social media, who work in education, can have such opinions, is it any wonder that behaviour in schools is often below what it could be? If the people in charge of children believe that misbehaviour is anything to be discouraged, or worse, isn't misbehaviour at all, what chance to children have? Worse, what chance do poor children have if their teachers excuse classroom misbehaviour on any of the grounds above?


That's what I have no problem with any government initiative that tries to shine a light on this most urgent of issues. If kids don't behave, they don't learn. Poor behaviour is one of the biggest impediments to progression facing children, and it's far too common to see misbehaviour excused — usually at the structural level — because of excuses such as the ones, above. We already have all the powers we need. Now we need to make sure that we're doing it. Until every school has perfect behaviour, who can blame anyone for saying so?