Are hubs or phone bans what schools really need now?

Covid has exposed dire inequalities in education – yet Gavin Williamson talks of phone bans, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Covid: Are behaviour hubs or phone bans what schools need, Gavin Williamson, asks Geoff Barton

“I can no longer bear to listen to music while operating,” writes eminent neurosurgeon Henry Marsh in his revealing memoir, Do No Harm.

That insight got me thinking: does the medical profession get lecturettes from the health secretary about which is the best kind of operating theatre – one that is silent, or where complex operations are conducted against the surgeon’s latest music compilation?

Similarly, would surgeons expect their health minister to tell them how best they should deal with, say, chronic haemorrhoids?

The reason I ask is that this week the education secretary has been saying things and writing things. And, in fairness, there’s a lot he could be talking about. 

The pandemic has shone a bleak spotlight on the extraordinary inequalities hardwired into our education system. Back in 2019, the highly respected Education Policy Institute concluded that: “In last year’s annual report, we modelled that if the trend over the last five years were to continue, it would take over 500 years for the disadvantage gap to be eliminated at secondary level in English and maths.” 

So, on the watch of a government that talks endlessly about “levelling up”, the education secretary could be mapping out the scale of the widening gap now and positing some solutions.

Gavin Williamson: Falling back on the red meat of behaviour and discipline in schools

He could be reflecting on what we’ve learned about England’s obsession with an overburdened examination system and what changes will be made for students in 2022 and beyond. 

He could be talking about how we address the disturbing mental health crisis involving so many young people, or what we’ve learned about technology and learning, or how we will retain more teachers in the future, or how we might finally overcome the long-standing snobbery between so-called academic and technical education. 

Yes, there’s lots that an education secretary could be saying to the profession and the wider public. And so what did we get this week? 

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gavin Williamson said: ”I firmly believe that mobile phones should not be used or seen during the school day, and will be backing headteachers who implement such policies.” And from there, of course, it was a quick step into another one of those sterile debates about the merits of “silent corridors”.

Perhaps we should take some comfort from the fact that even a pandemic cannot prevent politicians from falling back on red-meat stuff about discipline and standards. But it is irksome and at the very least pretty tin-eared, given the current context. 

The solution to all educational problems? Hubs

Because the reports I’m getting back from school and college leaders is that pupil behaviour across the country is proving – like attendance – very good. 

That is, in part, because most young people are pleased to be back, and are appreciating the rhythms and routines of education, the reassurance of being taught in person by adults who love knowing things and want their pupils to know them, too.

The good behaviour is also explained, of course, by the fact that new systems are in place – keeping groups in bubbles, staggering breaks and lunchtimes, limiting interaction between year groups, having more visible leadership around the place to keep an eye on things.

So it’s hard to see why focusing on mobile phones rather than, say, the crushing effects of poverty on educational opportunities, seemed sensible. 

Except that it was timed to coincide with a delayed announcement about behaviour.

A couple of years ago, someone at the Department of Education said to me, not entirely in jest: “Tell me what the problem is in education, and I’ll tell you what our answer will be: hubs.” 

And so it is with behaviour. Alongside teaching school hubs, maths hubs, music education hubs, English hubs, now – with a £10 million Easter fanfare – we have (roll of drums, please) behaviour hubs

As the DfE hype puts it: these “will enable schools and multi-academy trusts with exemplary behaviour cultures and practices to work with partner schools that want and need to improve behaviour in their school”.

It’s a programme that feels a bit like Maundy Thursday, when the monarch dishes out pennies to the deserving poor. Here, some institutions that are deemed to have exemplary behaviour will tell the rest of us where we are going wrong.

Except that, as I know from experience, behaviour doesn’t quite work like this. Silent corridors might be the perfect solution for schools in certain contexts. But many of the leaders I work with – most getting on with the job and rarely in the limelight – have a pretty basic behaviour philosophy, which was also mine for 15 years of headship. 

They see our schools and colleges as places where the older generation prepares our children and young people to take their place as responsible citizens in the world as it is. And the world as it is isn’t a place of silent corridors or banned mobile phones. They’ll need to learn how to manage their conduct, to respect boundaries, to exercise the self-restraint that underpins a harmonious community.

In these schools, leaders want young people to behave well because they want to behave well, rather than because of some carrot-and-stick behaviour template.

Of course, there are things we can learn from the ethos and culture of other schools. The best leaders have always been outward-looking, hungry to see their schools improve, adamant that good behaviour creates the climate for good teaching, which leads in turn to good learning. 

Whether that needs £10 million “hubs” is questionable. And what any debate about behaviour certainly doesn’t need is crowd-pleasing platitudes about mobile-phone bans.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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