The two biggest problems in education that no one takes seriously #1: Behaviour

16th November 2013 at 22:26


The phone's ringing. The kettle's boiling. The door bell goes. Which one do you deal with first? None of them: the building's on fire.


There are two issues facing schools that, if confronted, would make an enormous impact on the effectiveness of teaching and learning. They affect everyone who works or studies, they are leviathan factors in how well children do in education, and they are ubiquitous. But they are the two issues discussed least in every education debate I have encountered in the last ten years: behaviour, and workload.




I write about this a good deal, and I started almost accidentally. The day I began teaching I could see how important good behaviour was to good learning. The school in which I started had terrible behaviour, and it was demonstrably obvious that it was the main impediment to children failing their exams. If they were mucking about, or hitting each other, or dealing skunk, or whatever lovely thing they did, they were not learning about Chekov and Molotov and Hamlet. I have an axe to grind about behaviour- I run the TES behaviour forum, and I run classes on behaviour management- but I am not a vested interest. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to never have to mention it again. But that golden day is distant.


I have visited a lot of schools in my time, and I'm afraid to say that my overwhelming impression is that the ones that have the best results also have the best behaviour, and it's almost always because they take it seriously: they talk explicitly about standards and boundaries and expectations; they revisit these regularly; they have staff dedicated to its execution, rather than simply expecting staff to absorb it into their existing timetables.


They frequently have senior staff whose substantive role is dedicated to observe, monitor and maintain behaviour standards a la Mr Drew. They have clear behaviour policies that aren't merely ghastly carbuncles buried in a dusty folder; they have teachers who share the same policies and standards; they have clear tariffs of sanctions and rewards, and give time for staff to perform these. Many schools have these in theory, but fail at the practical level. Oftsed will see their policies exist, but they exist only in the Matrix of the abstract.


But schools still don't talk about this enough. They often expect staff to devise their own individual policies and standards, ignoring the obvious benefits of unity and community. They have senior staff who believe that behaviour isn't part of their remit. They have classroom staff who think that behaviour is solely the responsibility of senior staff. Children get away with misbehaviour because no one follows up, and regular offenders are permanently on bail, free to harm others and themselves.


Schools don't need any extra powers to make this happen; they just have to take behaviour seriously. It needs to be on every agenda in every meeting. It needs to be talked about, regularly. It needs clear policies, and people need to be supported in following these policies, or made to. It needs staff to be proactive about behaviour; rather than just waiting and reacting to bad behaviour. It needs staff- usually middle leader and above- to be confident about visiting rooms and challenging poor behaviour as and before it happens. Children need to see that their school is governed by law, not licentiousness. Then, children will start to feel safe, valued and comfortable with learning. And staff enjoy the fruits of a calm kingdom. And the students can learn and the teachers can teach, and everyone flourishes. It's Plato's goddamn Republic.


Why doesn't every school do this? There are many smoking guns. One whisper of cordite is from poor staff training, at the ground level of the classroom and the eyrie of the SLT. Training institutions also seem addicted to poor advice in this area. Many, many of the teachers I coach tell me they were advised to give whole class detentions; to always wait for silence; to never give detentions, and so on, advice that is as sound as telling an alcoholic to get a job in a brewery. Another culprit is the culture in some LEAs, where inclusion had become a modern dogma. I could write a book on my loathing for what happened to inclusion. It started as a noble endeavour to include marginalised children with disabilities; it became a weasel term that meant any kid, any kid must be retained in mainstream education, a place that simply isn't fit for some. Another guilty party is a government culture that harrowed special schools in the state sector, and left children with, literally, no where to go in some constituencies. There's old-fashioned cowardice. There's the kind but foolish belief that no child should be excluded. Finally, lately, there's the odd policy that insists any school that excludes a child must fund their provision elsewhere, an odd disincentive from a government that wants to encourage the right of schools to enforce good behaviour, even up to the terminal point.


But for some, it's a bitter pill to swallow. It's a steep hill to climb at first, but every second invested in its execution is a seed that bears an orchard of reward. If schools don't tackle these issues, out of fear, or laziness, or invertebracy, then they fight the same battles pointlessly every day. If they choose to stand their ground, they plant their flag at the top of the castle and start to build destinies we would want for our own children.


And rarely enough, this is something that is largely beyond the ability of the Secretary of State to make happen, and entirely within the grasp of schools. Ofsteds rarely can tell how a school behaves, because Ofsteds see schools in laboratory conditions. Bad kids bundled away, and the smell of paint everywhere. No law can be passed to insist upon good behaviour. It takes guts, and a staff that pulls together, and a senior team with moxie.


Behaviour: I'd call it the elephant in the room, but the difference is, people sometimes talk about elephants. Many schools seem to want magic bullets, but when was the last time you bought a magic bullet that worked? They want simple solutions to complex problems that are rooted in habits and society and psychology. The solution to better schools is staring us in the face: better behaviour. But no one wants to talk about it. They focus on magic beans and magic bullets, and expensive intervention programs and a million INSETs that cost the earth but buy nothing.


It's the behaviour, stupid. Like diets, everyone knows how to do it, but many can't face what it takes. Eventually they forget what diets are; they think diets are bad, anachronistic, Victorian. They look for 21st century solutions: gastric bands, stomach staples, appetite suppressants. But the answer is staring us in the class.


The building's on fire.


Next: workload- click here to read my follow up post