Deliver us: Why the Ofsted guidance on behaviour still undermines teaching and learning
Ofsted have returned from the desert, having spent forty days and nights reinventing itself. Dame Wilshaw has been banging the drum for New Coke Ofsted since he first sat in the saddle, the only problem seems to have been that the rider changed but the horse didn't. Commentators like Old Andrew, myself and many others quickly spotted that, although the word from the chair was that teachers no longer had to monkey-dance the same tired old educational shibboleths to be the heroes of the classroom, inspectors on the ground were far from quick to adopt these new maxims. The Doctor had regenerated, but the Tardis was still rumbling on.
Over Christmas, Ofsted – the sly b*ggers – sneaked out their revised guidelines. What was that all about? I have no idea what favourable alignment of the rolling media horoscope cycle this favoured. Perhaps they were just clearing out their in-trays before the office party. But it landed in the laps of a lot of teachers watching Home Alone, eating pâté from the pot with their fingers. And it suggested that owlish ears had been listening to the criticisms and moved on them. Inspectors were now emphatically directed away from pet pedagogic prejudices, and towards – ironically – a more inclusive approach to teaching. I was out in my back garden, rattling off automatic gunfire at the stars like a drunk lottery winner in a fiesta. Inspectors might still seethe and pulse for group work and bone-headed party tricks like independent learning and discovery japes, but they could no longer insist upon it. A lot of teachers who favoured direct instruction and content-rich lessons could breathe again.
This wouldn't matter, if Ofsted wasn't one of the single biggest levers the government has to control education, like that other Jaeger, funding. But it is, and it isn't going anywhere yet, so it needs to be as efficient and helpful as possible, both as a diagnostic and a prescriptive tool. Recent decades have shown it to be as reliable a balm as trepanning, bleeding and mercury cures.
This is several steps in the right direction. But there's still work to be done in one of the most crucial areas of the lived experience of schooling: behaviour. Too often, behaviour in schools, in classrooms and in public spaces is an anchor that stops learning from sailing. The more I coach and advise in this area, the more books I write, the more teachers I speak to, year after year, the more that something I suspected from day one is confirmed: that unless the school system supports good behaviour, even the best teachers will only be able to shore up their own classrooms up to a point and learning overall will struggle everywhere.
I used to think that all schools needed was to change their attitudes towards behaviour; that this wasn't something amenable to DfE intervention because the solutions to most behaviour problems are entirely within the grasp of almost every school (something I'm writing a book about as we conspire here on the internet). All it takes are routines, training, consistency, consequences and high expectations – nothing novel or cryptic. That is still true, but I've come to see that the spectre of the Inspectors looms large over everything, and schools have been so thoroughly drained of initiative, so dependent on the approval of Ofsted, that anything not specifically deemed haram by Her Majesty's Inquisitors is halal, and anything not specifically highlighted as required is trivial.
So, in this context, Ofsted needs to set out a clear stall on what it expects to see from an inspection of behaviour. Then it needs to take a meaningful sample of what the behaviour is like, send it off to the labs and factor the results into its judgements. And, to be fair to Ofsted, that's exactly what they have tried to do. Like teaching, behaviour has also enjoyed revised guidelines, most of which are sound. There are several parts to the behaviour guidelines that I applaud, standing. But in some ways it doesn't go far enough, and in others, it needs to throw the stick in reverse. Here's why:
1. Behaviour inspections are often hopelessly optimistic
Behaviour is easy to fake, short term. The most explosive kids vanish; teachers, senior staff and support staff alike are on red alert to present a drilled but breezy front. The kids are often, too, holding their breath, having been paralysed by their suddenly very earnest teachers. Faces appear to monitor corridors and playgrounds that haven't breathed anything but office air conditioning for years. The school tightens like a sphincter – and sphincters tighten. Staff, when quizzed, are insane if they do anything other than exude confidence in the conduct of the school corpus, and its systems. Student representatives are often selected by the school itself and collude with the siege mentality. The school tricks itself out like Miley Cyrus, foam glove, tongue, the lot.
The revised guidelines only partially address this, and in my next blog I'll suggest ways that these impediments can be overcome.
2. Historical data are meaningless
Almost meaningless. Inspectors are encouraged to draw a historical picture of behaviour, going beyond the merely immediate evidence of their senses to combat the problems of point one. To do this they, understandably, turn their telescopes towards data on exclusions, attendance, school systems, rewards, etc. This is where the worst crimes are committed, because these are areas where the schools do have a direct influence and where the most grisly of crimes are committed. This is where any fledgling behaviour systems can be crushed before they draw their first breaths. And it's down to this one part of the guidance:
"80. High exclusion figures, and particularly the repeated exclusion of the same pupils, are not consistent with good behaviour overall. Inspectors should consider whether there is disproportionate exclusion of any particular group of pupils. High numbers of exclusions, either overall or of a particular group of pupils, are likely to indicate ineffective systems and structures to support pupils, including basic behaviour management to prevent low-level disruption."
And there it is. A hand grenade. A goddamn landmine, designed to take the feet off its victims, who then need two more just to help them escape. Equating high exclusions with poor behaviour management creates a context where schools, in order not to display this sin, simply stop excluding. It reverses cause and effect. It punishes schools for doing what they sometimes have to do. Can you imagine a society that congratulated itself for a low crime rate by simply falling to record crime? You don't have to – that's exactly what we've expected from schools.
Why are exclusions so important? Shouldn't they be relatively rare, after all? Doesn't this only affect a tiny minority of pupils? The answer is, as any teacher in a tough school knows, that exclusions affect everyone because they are the terminus of the entire school behaviour system. If a child misbehaves, there tends to be a sanction. If that sanction fails to amend, then the sanctions and solutions escalate in either severity or extent. If the pupil repeatedly fails to amend their behaviour, then there needs to be an ultimate deterrent and strategy: exclusion, not used lightly, but used without fail when required. And not just punitively, but for the good of all – exclusion can and should be the route to accessing special provision that the child obviously needs. It also serves justice and teaches the pupil, and everyone else, that the will of the community must be respected; that individual wishes can only be accommodated so far in a society with finite resources.
Remove this final sanction and strategy and it's like pulling the plug on a set of Christmas lights; each bulb darkens, from the tip to the socket. Children slowly learn that misbehaviour will, if pursued with commitment, result in...nothing: nothing will happen. Why turn up for a ten minute detention if you can ignore the escalation? Why turn up for half an hour? A parental meeting? A meeting with the school counsellor? Crushing the terminal point of sanctions isn't a minor effect; it steps on the windpipe of the whole system, until you're back to teachers running classrooms on charm, persuasion and optimism. That's what this direction creates: an opportunity for schools to appear calm and civil by removing the spine of the very system designed to support it.
So, by asking inspectors to consider schools against national averages for rates of exclusion, attendance and so on, a situation is created where it benefits schools extrinsically to generate a false profile. Of course, this wouldn't be a problem if inspectors were to take the view that high rates of exclusion might very well be a sign of a school dealing with high rates of challenging behaviour, a headteacher turning around a previously chaotic school, a sudden change in intake or a million other things. It might actually be a sign of a powerful, muscular leadership, taking exactly the right action. But no, it's become a sign of incompetence, a red flag datum.
It's also led to other equally tragic ends: schools excluding on the quiet; managed moves, pupils penned into classes where no one's needs are met. When I speak to some pupils in schools in which I coach, they can't understand why some kids are routinely kept in mainstream education when all they do is bounce off walls. I don't know what to say to them. The real answer is that schools are now scared to exclude them, and frequently don't know how to provide for them, because the system by which they are assessed prohibits their genuine remedy.
In my next blog I'll look at ways in which the inspection guidelines could drive good behaviour, rather than scupper it like an anvil in a yacht race.