'Only by very strict behaviour management can you free children's minds'

Self-confessed ‘hippy’ headteacher Mike Fairclough believes that from strong behaviour management comes the freedom to broaden children’s minds

Mike Fairclough

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When did it become acceptable for children to swear at their teachers and to physically assault them? When did parents stop respecting school teachers and think that they can speak to them in a derogatory manner?

Talking to colleagues within other schools, these sorts of behaviours are increasing with alarming pace. As a headteacher, I want all of the pupils at my school to be able to engage in exciting and educationally rich activities. This would be impossible to achieve if I were to allow poor behaviour by some pupils and parents to go unchecked.

In my view, high behaviour expectations and zero tolerance of poor behaviour are the way to deal with behaviour issues within schools.

It could be argued that this is a return to “old school” values. Which does not fit with my persona. I am the head with the long hair and the ‘hippy’ image. The one in the press with the water buffalo, meditation tepee and the extensive "cosmic" outdoor education programme. The perception is that my behaviour management must be just as free.

Mixed approach to behaviour management

But that’s not necessarily the case. It was first pointed out to me that I am broadly left-wing in my outlook, but with right-wing educational values, by a journalist who was interviewing me in 2016. She wasn’t being critical either. It was a compliment. The same remark was made to me by a fellow headteacher on a SEND course I recently attended. Again, this was not meant as a criticism.

Indeed, it would appear, from talking with colleagues within the profession, that many would welcome a return to more traditional educational values. I want the children at my school to have creative and emotionally broadening experiences, within an environment of discipline and high expectation. The latter may well be perceived as right-wing, but I see nothing wrong with that. Having reflected on the observations of others, I believe that a strategic balance of left- and right-wing educational approaches is the best thing for all children.

Underpinning this attitude to discipline has to be excellent and stimulating teaching. Children cannot be accused of poor behaviour if they are receiving weak teaching and are subject to poor behaviour management. However, children deserve to be taught and teachers deserve to teach within an environment that is mutually respectful and conducive with learning.

Strict and strong

In a busy classroom, every child should be expected to put up their hand before they speak. They should always speak to adults in a respectful manner. They should be taught to line up properly and to be silent when it is appropriate. I expect all of my children to follow these basic “old school” rules, in the same way that I had to when I was at school. If they don’t adhere to my rules they receive a detention for a duration that I will set. I never negotiate with a child about how long they think they should be detained, which is another worrying approach I have witnessed within other schools.

This way of doing things paves the way for me to engage all of my children in exciting and sometimes risky educational pursuits. All of my children have the opportunity to learn shooting with shotguns, to use knives and to light fires. They also have the opportunity to develop their creative freedom and to explore the arts within fields of their choice. These activities would be impossible without firm discipline.

Ultimately, schools are places where children go to learn to read, write and do maths. That’s why we test our children using the SATs in Year 6 and it is largely what Ofsted will judge a school on. Broadly speaking, if our children are making good progress academically and leave us fully literate and numerate, we have done a reasonable job. We have done an even better job if we can do all of that while also giving our children rich and exciting educational experiences. The only way we can meaningfully achieve this, with the number of children in our care, is to get tough on behaviour and to raise our expectations of both pupils and parents.

This gives everyone working in schools a happier and more successful educational experience and prepares our children for the rigour and riches of later life.

Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, which was the TES Primary School of the Year in 2016. To enter this year, apply here

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Mike Fairclough

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