Shoot the elephant: The Ofsted report into low-level disruption.

25th September 2014 at 12:00

Finally, Ofsted addresses one of the most serious impediments to children's learning in the UK: low-level disruption. It's amazing how much time and money is invested in poking through the grisly entrails of neuroscience, cognitive psychology and school structures in order to establish how we can squeeze a carat or two more gold out of the school goose's ileum, when there's piles of the stuff to be scooped up elsewhere.


Behaviour. It's always been about behaviour. From the day I stepped into a classroom, the biggest obstacle I faced in getting students from average A to brilliant B was how they behaved, or didn't. My first day, a student started dealing skunk at the back of the room; by the end of it, someone had told me to f*** off, twice (and that was just the head, ho ho). But they weren't the biggest problems for teaching; the Kryptonite for learning was the low-level stuff – the chatting, the sullen refusals, the phones, the rocking, the headphones, paper-throwing. Everything that doesn't look like anything special in description, but collectively erodes the lesson like a universal solvent.


I've been writing about this since before the first incarnation of Noel Edmonds. I've been running the TES behaviour forum for almost six years, and working with hundreds of schools, coaching, training and advising on behaviour. And this report is spot-on.


It's not that schools are falling apart with sin, like Sodom, or tearing themselves apart – although a very small number are. It's about tipping points, and cultures. Every teacher knows that it takes only two, three persistently disruptive pupils to ruin a lesson for everyone, or drive the teacher to responses that gobble up the lesson time. Only a few. It doesn't mean the whole class is bedlam. How many spiders in your cornflakes does it take to make you put the spoon down and head for toast? The same applies to schools. Every school will have a hardcore of recidivists who have the potential to spoil the whole barrel. Many teachers and heads will spend the biggest portion of their time on these students. Of course they do. And the rest of the school or class? The kids who don't routinely tell the teacher to go stuff themselves and the three-part lesson they rode in on? Tough.


 The six habits of calm schools


But here's the maddening thing: schools can fix this. Depending on where you start from, it can take the willpower of Oliver Cromwell and the patience of a heart surgeon, but we can do this. I've been in schools where the same faces caper the same way every day, and fires are fought but never put out or contained. And I've been in schools where children danced around a maypole of shared values and communal respect for each other's needs. And here's what the latter do:


  • A clear school behaviour code, or vision, or policy. One that everyone knows, and one that everyone is expected to support.
  • An adamantine set of structures to enable that vision. One that every member of staff understands. Rules, appropriate for each school. Rarely are they anything other than mundane: procedures for starting lessons, conduct in the cafeteria, etiquette for speaking in lessons, and so on. Nothing that contravenes the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Clear consequences for supporting or contravening these structures. Rewards AND sanctions, in tandem.
  • An easily understood line-management structure for escalations
  • A supportive admin team to tie it all together
  • Highly visible senior staff, with the head most visible of all. All with the confidence to discuss/support/challenge staff who don't understand the policies or need help running with them. And an open-door policy in classrooms.


That's it, in essence. Nothing anyone couldn't work out for themselves. But I see lots of schools where behaviour is deflected back into the classroom by well-meaning or nervous line management. Where class teachers act inconsistently, undermining each other as they do. Where letters don't go home. Where classroom teachers are expected to handle all behaviour. Where senior staff are expected to be the sole authorities. Any school that doesn't realise that behaviour is everyone's responsibility, but each different role owns different forms of that responsibility, is heading for a crash.


An inconvenient truth


I've written a lot about the Two School theory  –  that senior, experienced staff often think behaviour is fine, while less-experienced, low-status staff drown in misery –  and it applies on a macro level too. I'd agree with those who say that most behaviour is good in most schools. It is. But that doesn't matter when in every school, and I mean every school, there are pockets, classrooms, corridors, where good behaviour isn't the norm. When in some schools it goes much further. It's easy to ignore if you aren't right at the chalk face, which is why it's been so rarely mentioned before except by...wait for it...classroom teachers. But when were they ever asked their opinion? Student voice is all the rage, parent power of course, and senior staff get to write all the reports. Where is Teacher Voice?


Lost, until now. I've been writing about this for my whole career. Thanks to new social media, more and more teachers are trying the same. And thank God that this report finally acknowledges what many teachers have known along. Bad behaviour is the elephant in the classroom. So shoot the damn elephant.