Two schools bad, one school good: Ideas for improving school behaviour

22nd May 2014 at 18:11

Every time I give a lecture at an ITT provider on behaviour management, I am delighted and dismayed to see how full the theatre usually is: delighted to be met by more than a lost dog and a janitor with a mop, dismayed that there's such a demand. My own education was limited to a one-hour lecture and a kind wave, before being dropped into a sink-estate school like a tinned pear into a blender. Hilarious consequences ensued for about three years after that. It was like dropping Stephen Hawking into an Olympic pool and telling him to grow gills.


Years later, I'm the guy doing the lecture and the first thing I say is always: "You ain't gonna learn much listening to me". Or, to be kinder to myself, by merely listening to me, because learning how to run a room is something learned by running rooms. There is no flight simulator worth a damn that can replace that. You have to get your cardigan sleeves dirty, and I mean like Titus Andronicus dirty.


A year or so ago I was asked by a Scottish Secretary of State for Education what powers the government needed to give to teachers and to schools in order for them to have the tools to manage behaviour? And I, wise as a child, said, "Nothing".


And I was both right and wrong. Right, because we – teachers, schools – already have enough ammo in our gun belts to get behaviour right in 99 per cent of schools, classes and circumstances. We don't need the right to use tear gas or stun sticks. And also wrong because, despite my most optimistic projections, many schools still aren't tackling behaviour as well as they should.


How do I know this? Because of the odd position I occupy: a behaviour advisor to the TES, and someone with the honour of being asked into a good many schools to coach, train and mentor staff, advise on school systems and assist with structural management of school behaviour. I've seen, therefore, a large number of schools, especially in the South East, and answered thousands of queries on the forums and in emails from across the country. My experience is that there still exists a significant and structural problem with behaviour in UK schools.


I default to doubt when I am told otherwise by interested parties. Quantitative data are a vital part of understanding school behaviour, of course, but only as long as one understands what the data – assuming the data are honestly, proportionately obtained – actually indicate. Exclusion rates are frequently massaged down, simply by schools failing to exclude when they probably should due to a) the damage it causes them in an Ofsted evaluation, where exclusion rates are used as a proxy for good systems and b) losing the funding for each student, as it follows them into alternative provision. Which leads to high fixed-rate exclusions, often in fuzzy internal provision, or perhaps worse, the black market of the managed move, where children disappear and reappear like Harry Potter from one fireplace to another.


Expecto detentionus!


Another problem is that what is observed is frequently not the whole picture. The map, or in this case, the sample, is not the territory. Because there are two schools in every school: the school of the high-status staff member, with the luxury of time and authority to cushion them from the worst classes; and the school of the supply teacher and NQT, who possess neither. Frequently, in badly-run schools, the neophyte is given the worst classes and the bottom sets, almost as a kind of gauntlet. And we're back to Stephen Hawking, gasping at the bottom of the deep end.


So what could be done to make sure that behaviour improves nationally? Here are some suggestions:


  1. Ramp up the snap behaviour inspections. Yeah, I know this is about as popular as a colonoscopy, but when did medicine ever taste like champagne? Ofsted has begun to inspect schools solely for behaviour, like the Spanish Inquisition: unexpectedly. But this is normally as a result of a prior inspection. Why not have them triggered by...why, by nothing at all? We seem to have accepted the rather cruel notion of the Grass Up Your School website, where borderline sociopaths can vent their sadness online by criticising schools. Why not have a feature where teachers, dissatisfied by the behaviour structures at school, could do the same? Obsessives could be filtered out, and patterns observed. Who knows: maybe teachers actually know something about their schools.
  2. Make these snap inspections focus on the following groups: new staff, supply teachers and cover supervisors. Ask them in total confidence what support they have had, what behaviour they experience and what is done about it? Think how many lessons are taught every day by such teachers. What percentage of your school day is delivered by such teachers? I'm guessing around 10 per cent. That's significant. And supply teachers are, incidentally, the best weather vane I've ever found for ranking schools' behaviour, at least relative to one another. Maybe Ofsted should just ask them.
  3. Inspectors could follow a badly-behaved child around lessons for a day, without revealing which child it is. What happens to them? What do they do? What are the consequences?
  4. Look at the school behaviour policy. Then ask the staff what they think the policy is. If the school is a mess, you'll see a hundred different answers.
  5. Oh, and ask the staff. A lot of them. Not just a couple of prize ponies.
  6. Outside of school, staff training is key. Most teachers get all their training in one gulp, right at the start, and then you're qualified forever, as Sam Freedman pointed out last week. What a terrible model, awful Insets and ghastly top-down CPD notwithstanding. New teachers (and more seasoned ones) need to reflect and recharge after a year, eighteen months. Why not introduce models that encourage recertification after this time, or better still, retraining followed by an advanced certification, rather than a frog suit with no airline?


There are many other things I would do. The picture I get of schools is that most of them are doing ok, with most pupils, but that very many schools are doing very badly in pockets, and some schools – a minority – are having a very bad time indeed with behaviour throughout the day and the premises. That can't be something we're happy with. We can do better, for the sake of teachers and students everywhere who need more than we sometimes give them.