'Good behaviour isn’t left-wing or right-wing – and neither is it trad or prog'

Writing ahead of the ResearchED national conference, its director, Tom Bennett, calls for a truce in education's 'Great Debate' – if only to find agreement on behaviour

Tom Bennett

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I was on a behaviour panel recently where someone said something so very odd that my eyebrows nearly flew off my forehead. "Detentions are a form of violence," she said. So I recalled all the circumstances that immediately condemned: chats about child protection issues, polite requests to finish off pieces of homework, conversations where I explained how unacceptable racist language was in the classroom, and so on. All condemned as violence. Such oddities are often the preserve of people who have never taught, or had to deal with challenging classrooms. Detentions are just one tool in your behaviour box, but my goodness, in the box they are. 

In the Great Debate of education, few things invite such controversy as one’s views on good behaviour in schools. Fair enough; debate is healthy. It is often torturously partisan; it can divide people like a canyon, instantly. But one thing it should not, ever be, is about politics.

To clarify, in one sense, everything is conceivably about politics, if we take that to mean the study of power. But more than that, I mean that behaviour has nothing to do with party politics. It is neither an exclusively left-wing nor a right-wing concern. It is also neither wholly traditionalist nor progressive. Of course, it intersects with both planes, but that's what these are: planes of intersection. Behaviour maps neatly to neither, despite the best efforts of some to contrive that it does.

Ideologically, socialism focuses on equity; conservatism on security; liberalism on freedom. All of these very fine ambitions can be secured, at least in part, by a careful attendance to the behaviour in one’s lessons. None of them declare that "do what you wilt" should be the whole of the law. Marx, Burke and Rawls all had traditional academic educations at institutions where they were most certainly expected to behave very well indeed. From Martin Luther King to Mahatma Gandhi, revolutionaries throughout history have remade the world using not just their will but also their wit, built in part at schools and universities that demanded enormous levels of self-regulation, industry and focus. Party Conservatives are no more married to good behaviour than career Labourites, as tabloids will often testify. No manifesto makes much of behaviour, and even the recent interest from the government has been a modern evolution in taking behaviour seriously.

'We all want the same – well-behaved classrooms'

Nor is the trad/ prog debate sufficient to encapsulate behaviour entirely. Because whatever ambition you have for children, and whatever aim you value for education, it is served best by a clear and focused behaviour strategy. Do you see children as future employees, fitting cleanly into jobs that haven't been invented yet? Jobs need skills and knowledge, and mucking around doesn't achieve that. Do you want children to leave as monkish scholars, clutching sheafs of exam coupons so they can progress to the next level in Super Mario University 64? Then they better get busy behaving. Do you see schools as imaginariums, crucibles of creativity and ingenuity? No creative endeavour or mind ever achieved so much as a potato painting without the knowledge and skills of the field, whether it be sculpture, ballet or architecture. Creative geniuses aren't born; they’re grown in greenhouses of diligence and craft. Whether you self-flagellate with copies of Visible Learning or read paragraphs of Ken Robinson out at beat-poetry evenings, what you want needs well-behaved classrooms.

One of the most pressing concerns I see in classrooms and schools is how uneven the focus on good behaviour is. There are many schools where behaviour is excellent, and many fine professionals teaching, training and leading in this matter. But my concern is that this is neither evenly spread nor guaranteed in every school. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit around 200 schools in my career, and I’ve been struck by the enormous variety of success schools have in creating positive, nurturing environments where children can flourish as scholars and people.

That's not to say they don't try. I've never seen a school that didn't try its best to maintain civil and purposeful conduct amongst its staff and students. But mileage varies. One thing that every school should have in common is the desire to create a healthy culture where good behaviour is encouraged and bad, discouraged. People are social animals; even hermits cleave to other hermits. We take enormous cues from how to behave from other people in our community. This culture, this "how we do things around here" will happen whether you create it consciously or not. The bad news with that is that you allow the culture to evolve in ways that may not optimise the flourishing of children; children may develop bad habits rather than good. The good news is that adult intervention and role-modelling can work wonders. I’ve seen schools, in all circumstances, build wonderful cultures that valued kindness, achievement, industry and cooperation. If you've ever been/ worked in one of these schools, you will know how nurturing such places are for all who inhabit them. If you’ve done the same in the opposite, you know what it feels like working in a centrifuge.

Good behaviour isn't the preserve of one ideology; it is a basic requirement for the success of all human endeavour. Let’s argue about what those endeavours should aim towards. But let’s not argue any more whether or not children should behave. Because while they wait for us to settle our ideological differences, they're waiting to learn in classrooms that are safe and calm.

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

Read Tom's top 10 tips for behaviour management

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