I agreed last year to write a report for the DfE on how school leaders built great cultures (out this year) that scaffold the best social and academic behaviour. So I spent a lot of the last 12 months visiting schools throughout the UK, like a pedagogic David Carradine. It was a busman’s holiday for anyone who loves to see good schools run well. It was an interesting contrast for me because for the last ten years, I’ve also worked with schools that wanted to build better behaviour. It was fascinating to see the contrast between schools that were struggling, schools that were doing well but wanted to be even better, and schools that frankly taught me a few things about how you do it.
I didn’t just want to see schools where behaviour was gorgeous because the intake was statistically advantaged; I wanted to see schools where the intake suggested higher-than-average rates of poverty, challenge and difficulty, but that had still thrived. I wanted to see schools that had turned behaviour around in a few years. I wanted to see schools where great results and behaviour had been maintained over long periods, rather than bought in a gulp of unsustainable exertion or administrative legerdemain. I wanted to see primary. I wanted to see secondary. I wanted coastal, inner city, rural, remote, alternative provision. And I got it.
And what I saw gave me more hope than I think I’ve had in years, for what we have in education, and what we can achieve. Because everywhere I went, for every school under siege, I found a school where law, kindness and industry were the norm; for every Ofsted-chasing bureaucracy digging itself deeper into a slough of workload despair, I saw a beautiful engine of people where everyone was valued, and ambition, compassion and cooperation were the call to prayer.
It was clear to me that how these schools were run was crucial to their success; their cultures didn’t happen spontaneously. Someone – or a group of someones – made them happen. And while cultures are made of their participants, how they are led and what levers are applied to them, are desperately important. The culture of a school – or "how we do things around here, and the assumptions we have the underpin that" in short form- became my obsession. How did it happen?
Leadership was key. That was what they all had in common. At no point did the members of the student and staff body simply decide to act in a communally, maximally efficient way. No community above a handful of inhabitants can. What it took were leaders who knew what each school needed (and I found that what that meant could vary enormously depending on the context of the school – there was no one-size-fits-all solution. But is there ever?) and had the tenacity to turn their plans into a lived reality for hundreds of people. There were many things that many of them did that were very similar; broad themes and strategy rafts that I found to be best bets for most schools, most circumstances. There were boutique strategies for boutique situations, and exceptional exceptions. The wise leader learns to tell the difference and knows when to enforce a norm and when to tailor a judgement.
I spent many, many hours interviewing amazing school heads in all of these circumstances, touring schools, talking to staff and students. One question I always asked was "How did you know what to do in your school? Where did you learn to run it well?" And the answers, as the clickbait headline runs, were astonishing. Every one of them told me about inspirational role models they had been apprenticed to; or the school of Hard Knocks that they had passed through, before they understood their mistakes and learned how to do them less frequently; or lessons learned from their own experience; or common sense (which turns out to be not so common); or instinct; or dozens of other sources. But what almost none of them spoke about was any formal training. None of them attributed their success to any kind of professional certification process or required training process. It was all ad-hoc, or happy accidents, or their own hard work, self-study or character skills.
And I’m going to suggest that in a sector as vital, as valuable as the education of our children, that is far from good enough. Further, I’ll suggest that in a skillset as intrinsic to the creation of a safe and supportive school environment, just hoping that school leaders will pick it up as they go along, isn’t good enough. In many ways it reminds me of my own observations about initial teacher training: great in some places, terrible or non-existent in others. That situation also isn’t satisfactory. And at least a poorly trained teacher can (if they are fortunate) land in a well-run school where they can be nurtured and redirected. The poor headteacher has few safety nets of this kind. Their stakes could hardly be more high, while their safety net could hardly be more threadbare. Many of them step out onto the tightrope without even a pole for balance.
There is currently no requirement that a school leader has any kind of formal instruction in designing and building effective systems that support fantastic behaviour; no education in common (and uncommon) strategies that school leaders in similar circumstances have used; no requirement in fact that they themselves must demonstrate exemplary classroom management skills to rise in the ranks.
This is not the fault of individual schools or school leaders. This is a lack in our system. But it is also the crack where the light can shine in. Because we have an opportunity here to make a change that lasts, that makes an impact on the ones who can make the most impact. Extraordinary school leaders have been running extraordinary schools for as long as schools have been run. The heritage of strategies they employ (which should be seen as a Swiss Knife of possibility and variety rather than a universal hammer) should and can be shared with every school leader, prospective or current. They are learnable. They are intelligible. They can be modified and assimilated into different school circumstances in different ways. They aren’t dogma – they are devices that build launch pads for the children who need them most. And school leaders deserve to know more about them.
Tom Bennett was a teacher in the East End of London for 10 years. He is now the government’s behaviour tsar, and the director and founder of ResearchED, a grassroots, teacher-led project that aims to make teachers research-literate