It's the behaviour, stupid: Tristram and Wilshaw sing harmonies at the NEEC

16th January 2014 at 16:48


You wait your entire career for someone in politics to take behaviour seriously, and suddenly two buses come at the same time. Typical. Yesterday the North of England Education Conference saw big beasts from both sides of the sword lines converge on an idea that normally sees so little sunlight that it takes vitamin supplements: behaviour in schools isn't good enough, and unless political will is found to tackle it, children will frequently succeed despite education rather than because of it.


I've been beating this tattoo for so long I'm using my radius and ulna as drumsticks. But solving behaviour isn't sexy, easy, or aligned to a particular political orthodoxy, commercial interest, or dogmatic sorcery, so it normally gets sidelined in discussions in favour of more novel strategies. But there it is, an elephant in the classroom.


Perhaps the parties are looking for broad electoral capital; perhaps they've run out of virgin ideological territory upon which they can plant the highest flag. Perhaps they genuinely believe that behaviour is this month's low-hanging fruit. Whatever: it's so hot right now, it's practically Hansel.


Wilshaw buried himself to the hilt into this- as well he should. Unlike many of his detractors, he has actually turned around difficult classes and schools, and in an arena where no qualification exists to confer it, he can claim as much authority as any, and far more than most. Behaviour management is a profoundly experiential topic; running a room is as much craft as science, maybe more so, and listening to someone pontificate on behaviour management who hasn't had to teach year 9s after lunch, during a wasp invasion, is like, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, being told how to f*** by a Catholic priest. Wilshaw can claim, if nothing else, form as long as the transatlantic cable in this matter.


His main behaviour points were:

  • The UK suffers considerable challenge in recruitment and retention
  • East Asian countries do it much better than we do
  • You've never had it so good
  • Teach first is awesome
  • Nottingham schools are going down the plug hole
  • Teacher training isn't as good as it should be: poor candidates often progress when they shouldn't.
  • 40% of new recruits bail within five years because of behaviour- this is partly a fault of Teacher Training Providers, and partly down to poor training in schools
  • Ofsted needs to be tougher on Teacher Training Providers, by canvassing views of NQTs from September regarding their behaviour training provision, and then tracing that back to their TTP: classroom readiness will be a much bigger focus.

There's more, related, but that's the gist. And he's right. The present system isn't fit for purpose. Too many NQTs enter classrooms with either a thin idea of how to run a room, or worse, the wrong ideas. I've trained many, many new teachers with behaviour problems, only to find that the ideas they have inherited from their training to be extraordinarily bad- 'Give them sweets', 'Never set detentions' never set sanctions', 'Marry their mothers', and so on. Behaviour management is, at least in the broad brushstrokes, a spectacularly simple enterprise. What makes it difficult is consistency, building routines, and never giving up. It's a test of character and systems more than intelligence. But for many reasons, it's become a forgotten art, which is astonishing, when you consider that even the meanest of children knows what teachers should do to run a room. Everything I've read or heard from Wilshaw convinces me he knows this.


So when I read yet another headline that crucified him for 'attacking teachers', I gnash and rend my shirt. Unlike many of his critics, apparently, I read the transcript, and unless he veered so far from the script that he told teachers to 'bite me, ***,' what he said was as controversial as custard. He is, after all, the head of an inspectorate tasked to drive up standards. I have more reservations than Easyjet about Ofsted's mission and purpose, but given that we spend billions on education I would be surprised if the chief accountability panjandrum did anything other than try to improve areas that he sees as wasteful or harmful.


The problem with teacher training 


Teacher training is patchy: good in places on behaviour, terrible in others. The PGCE route sees rookies locked in a game of classroom Roulette; if you're lucky, your placement involves good teachers and great training. If you're not, there's no bad behaviour to deal with, or too much to deal with, or worse, no training of any quality to deal with either scenario. This is, as Wilshaw correctly identifies, too important a plate to drop. Knowing how to deal with poor behaviour transforms your career as a teacher, turning it from a trial to a profession. Not knowing leaves you as helpless as a scarecrow in a field of combine harvesters. Driven by kids.


This isn't to say all teacher training is bad, merely that as far as behaviour goes, an hour's lecture and a few ticks from a kind school mentor isn't good enough. This isn't peripheral to teaching: it's core; it's the teacher's centre of gravity. To distract from this message, as many have, because he had a pop at some people in the profession being unhelpfully negative, is to marginalise one of this generation's most important educational challenges for the sake of political ping-pong. I don't often have a glowing report of Ofsted, but in this, they're on the side of the angels.


21st Century Boy


Speaking of sides, Tristram Hunt is starting to find his heart song. A lot of it still sounds like cover versions of Stephen Twigg's greatest hits, but as Tom Jones would say, he has a lovely tone, and credit where it's due, he's worked in classrooms enough to know what a room full of year 10s smells like after a rainy break (answer: flatulence and sherbet). Also speaking at the NEER, he was laying out a smorgasbord of policies; three kisses and a wish for the future of education. There was a lot that troubled me as the sloppy seconds, the reheated leftovers from his anodyne predecessor- 21st century skills, Emotional Intelligence, the digital revolution of classrooms that still hasn't quite managed to occur despite the commercial sector assuring us it would, even a terrifying reference to John Dewey, a man who had a long , successful career- well, a year or two in Primaries- before he left to tell us how children really learned. I don't know if this is all him, or if it's an attempt to put water between Labour and Gove- I would say 'The Conservatives', but Mickey G runs his own fiefdom within government. But there's a lot of very groovy, very grr sentiments here that suggests Hunt's had a lot of people on shuffle in his iPod playlist.  


Interestingly, he also had a few things to say on behaviour- and teacher training, which probably isn't enjoying all this attention right now. Standards had to be raised, he said, harmonising with Wilshaw like Barbershop. His suggestion that teachers needed to recertify every two years went down like a bridal bouquet made of worms. But his suggestion that teacher training needed to embrace different certification routes corresponding to different competencies and pathways, one of which could be training as a behaviour specialist, was interesting, and novel. This was cooked and sold as 'A behaviour Czar for every school' by a predictable press, which I sincerely hope is a misrepresentation. Because no one member of staff can bear that Atlantic burden; you can't pick off the naughty kids like Robocop, and you can't move the Moon from its orbit with one pair of hands, however mighty.

Even Stephen Drew, the SLT from Educating Essex, who was in charge of standards in Passemores school before he left to run his own place, wasn't the policeman; the only way to raise behaviour standards is by disseminating good classroom management techniques, and by creating and maintaining good school behaviour policies and structures built on consistency, reliability and certainty. So, in effect, every school already has a member of staff responsible for these things. They're called the Head Teacher. But I like the idea of specialist behaviour teachers who coordinate training and monitor school structures and classroom practice.

So, a good day for the behaviour cause: at least the right people are talking about it, and they appear to be facing in the right direction. The next step needs to be seeing Wilshaw's words embodied in deed, and the recent imbroglio over teaching styles reminds us that what the chair wants and what the chair gets is often a country mile apart. After that, I'd like to see the removal of clause 80 from the Inspector guidance that equates (or at least obfuscates) high exclusions with poor management and leadership, which simply causes schools to stop excluding, which causes the whole behaviour chain to collapse from the top down, like a stricken skyscraper. But so far, so good. Keep singing. Education is listening.