There has been a lot of cyber-aggro on Twitter this week. War banners have been hoisted and camps defined. The battleground: the issue of behaviour, once again. Twitter is an important forum, no doubt, but it lacks the nuances and vital context needed to get to the heart of the issue, here.
After all, there is no easy solution – or magic bullet – to the complex issue of behaviour in our schools. As a result, the scant 140 characters of Twitter remind me of when I was younger and we’d go to the old red brick factory and lob broken bricks at each other. No one ever wins, but some of us get hurt in the process.
Yes, there were rather amusing accusations that exclusion might be a “progressive conspiracy” and progressives were trying to “silence the debate”. But much that I read cast a dark and terrible shadow over the day-to-day travails some teachers face. As a school leader, it would be easy to walk away in shame at the attitudes and actions of some headteachers.
So, I ask myself: what is the solution? How can we achieve the aims of those who want to do their job without coming face-to-face with the ills of society and the impact it has on our most vulnerable children? Is it even achievable? Have we defined the role of the teacher correctly?
It seems one argument is that we do not exclude children enough. This does not seem to be borne out by the figures: the Department for Education’s figures for the period 2015-2016 stated 6,685 children were permanently excluded from schools in England and this is an increasing figure (up 40 per cent in some areas). Last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank claimed that this was the tip of the iceberg and the numbers out of mainstream schools and in “alternative provision” were closer to 48,000.
Who's to blame for bad behaviour?
On a daily basis, I would understand why leaders are to blame. If the culture of a school is so toxic that staff are exposed to daily attacks – whether physical or verbal – the vitriol and anger are more than justified. I have never met a school leader who revels in the knowledge that their staff despises them. I have never met a leader who wants the staff at their school to suffer.
Leaders, in the main, do not want to run failing schools and poor behaviour – including a high exclusion rate – is right up there as an indicator that all is not well. When Ofsted call at such a school, when that staff survey goes out (and when they talk to the children), it would take a leader with monumental reserves of stupidity to think they will be all right.
As that leader sits across from a table of inspectors and proudly declaims that they have increased exclusion by 400 per cent, I know what the outcome will be. So yes, leaders do have a vested interest in reducing exclusions. But, in my experience, you cannot sweep even one high-end behaviour issue under the carpet without your school community knowing. This is often a problem because those incidents can quickly morph as they pass through the veins of school life. This is how some children’s reputations come in to being – and, usually, have nothing in common with their day-to-day behaviour.
Ofsted have a massive role to play here; they have to get this part right. I have visited hundreds of schools and I have never felt that any of them could hide the true colours of behaviour down a dusty corridor at the back of the school. Inspectors are not stupid: they follow any trail they find until they are happy.
But there were no shades of grey on Twitter, only stark black and white. Social media was awash with sentiments such as “leaders are putting teachers at risk”, “leaders don’t care” and “leaders are covering up the reality that teachers are facing every day”. One person even called for leaders to be sent to prison if teachers at their school were exposed to the dangerous behaviour of our most vulnerable children. Headteachers cannot ignore this. Some teachers have experienced things that are hard to read and just as hard to stomach.
But the issue is more nuanced than the sweeping statement that “leaders are failing on behaviour”. It is how we deal with the actions of the most vulnerable children we work with that matters. Leading a school where behaviour systems and rules are inconsistent (or non-existent) is very different to leading in a school where you have challenging pockets of behaviour from very vulnerable children.
I am a primary headteacher. We see behaviour as it develops earliest. This is where I believe the greatest work can be done. But the systems and services are not there. Over the last 15 years of my headship, it has become harder and harder to get the support we feel a child needs. The “every school for themselves” attitude that currently prevails means approaches are disjointed and unbalanced.
Is it the fault of leaders that they cannot ensure the right support is available for our most vulnerable children? Should they magic a solution when there is nothing there? Or, perhaps, should the finger be pointed elsewhere?
Brian Walton is a primary head in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1