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'The classroom behaviour debate isn't political? Don't make me laugh'

Responding to a recent Tes article by Tom Bennett, writer and trainer Sue Cowley worries that there is an attempt to shut down discussion about classroom behaviour

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Responding to a recent Tes article by Tom Bennett, writer and trainer Sue Cowley worries that there is an attempt to shut down discussion about classroom behaviour

“And now you do what they told ya, now you’re under control”
Killing In The Name – Rage Against the Machine

It must be very frustrating for the Department for Education (and its "behaviour tsar", Tom Bennett) to find that teachers still “argue… whether or not children should behave". "But wait a second," I hear you say, who on earth are these teachers who think that children should be allowed to misbehave in class? And, perhaps even more to the point, what the hell are they doing in a classroom? In over 15 years of working with teachers and schools on behaviour, I’ve never met a single person who believed such a thing. (Clue: this is because no one does.) The debate is categorically not about whether or not children should behave in school; the debate is about what their behaviour should look like, what "good behaviour" means, and how we should go about getting it. Frankly, I find the idea that behaviour is not political amusing. For sure, it’s not necessarily party-political (although beliefs do tend to vary according to which side of the political spectrum you are on). But to suggest that this is not a political as well as a practical discussion is to deny the truth of the matter. The personal is very much political, it cannot be anything but.

If I try to empathise for a moment with the DfE – to put myself in their shoes, as is my wont – I can see how a simple solution to behaviour would be very attractive. Surely, our civil servant friends must wonder, the answer should be straightforward? If only those (damn leftie?) teachers would have no excuses, maintain extremely high expectations and then punish any child who dared to breach them, then we could get this behaviour thing sorted and out of the way, once and for all? If only we would just get all the kids to shut up and do as they are told, then we could get on with filling them full of the "right kind" of knowledge. If only we would stop making excuses for them, all would be fine and dandy. On days when I’m feeling particularly cynical, I imagine I can hear the whispers in the corridors of the DfE about whether it might not just be possible to reintroduce corporal punishment, this being the ultimate in punitive consequences. Surely that way we could get back to the "good old days" when children knew their place and understood exactly who was in charge?

We don't want corporal punishment

The problem though (or perhaps it’s the solution?) is that we live in the 21st century now, not the 19th one. Children have rights. People generally don’t believe that the harsh and constant punishment of children is the best solution any more; many of us don’t even believe that it is ethical, given the legal duty of inclusion, the statistics around the number of children with SEND who are excluded from schools, and what the data tells us about the young people who end up in prisons. Our liberal sensibilities make us wonder whether there might not just be a better answer, one that involves building relationships, working with young people to help them learn how to behave well, as far as we possibly can. Not just to control them, and get them to conform and obey, but to encourage them to think about their behaviour and its effect on the rest of the community. And if that’s not political, I don’t know what is.

Given all the above, it is interesting to consider why it might be that the narrative coming out of the DfE is about teachers who don’t want children to behave. These presumably being the same "progressive" teachers of "the Blob" against whom Michael Gove was so given to railing. Ask parents how they actually feel about the teachers who work with their children, and they will typically tell you tales of admiration, of trust, of support and of approval. (Ask them how they actually feel about politicians, if you dare!)

The vast majority of parents feel that their children are being loved, and cared for, and guided in the right direction by a hard-working and dedicated teaching workforce, often against all the odds. And this is why I can only believe that this is an example of "gas lighting" – a way of making anyone who dares to question the "do what we told ya" narrative feel like they are saying something strange and wrong and odd. But we are not. And we must continue to refuse to do what they tell us, to refuse to conform with this narrative, if we feel that what they are telling us to do is not the right thing for our kids.

This piece originally appeared on Sue Cowley's blog. Sue is an author and speaker on education, as well as a teacher trainer. She tweets as @Sue_Cowley

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