British primary pupils are better behaved now than they have been for at least 20 years. They are more likely than their predecessors to listen to their teacher and to do the work assigned to them, according to a major new study.
Led by Brian Apter, senior educational psychologist for Wolverhampton council, they oversaw a team of 71 educational psychologists, who carried out observations in 141 classrooms. This was one of the largest primary school studies ever conducted.
The psychologists found that pupils were well-behaved and focused on their schoolwork for "an unexpectedly high proportion" of their time in class. Children concentrated on work for 85 per cent of the time: a higher rate than has ever been recorded before in British schools.
This improvement in pupils' behaviour began with a dramatic rise in the mid-1980s, and has continued steadily since. The researchers attribute this to the fact that the teachers provided clear and detailed instructions, and regularly praised pupils' work.
Chris Davis, of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, was not surprised. "Adults always say that it was better in their day," he said. "It's the golden-age syndrome. But I don't think there ever was a golden age.
"Most teachers would probably say, `Yes, there's more focused attention by children now than in the past.' Lessons are better planned and pitched to individual children. There's less opportunity for boredom, for being overstretched and understretched."
The psychologists found no link between pupils' behaviour and the size of their class, the number of adults in the room, the time of day, or the number of pupils eligible for free school meals.
But there was a link between behaviour and the size of the school: larger primaries tended to have better behaved, more focused pupils. The researchers suggested this might be because these schools offer higher salaries to their heads and benefited from economies of scale.
Children were equally well-behaved in urban and rural areas. But teachers in inner city primaries talked to pupils significantly more than their rural counterparts.
"This would appear to confirm the feeling of some teachers in inner city schools that they work harder," the researchers said. "Indeed, teachers in inner city schools might have to work harder in order to achieve the same high on-task rate that teachers in rural schools generally achieve."
Studies of classroom behaviour have been conducted since the early 20th century, and the psychologists' findings were compared with similar research findings from the 1970s onwards. Mr Apter believed that comparisons with earlier research would not be scientifically valid.
PUPILS IN CHARGE
When Libby Pryce started teaching, managing a class was essentially crowd control.
"The teacher was in charge, and that was it," said the deputy head of Pitt Street Infant School in Doncaster. "Now, the onus is on the children. They're part of the educational process."
Mrs Pryce, 58, qualified as a teacher in 1971, and has been teaching at Pitt Street for 20 years. She attributes the recent improvements in behaviour to the fact that children are increasingly asked to take responsibility for their own learning.
"Years ago, you marked work and that was it," she said. "You might say, `Well done', but you would never have given them the depth of feedback they get now."
By contrast, today's pupils are told what makes a good learner, and are given clear objectives and behaviour expectations.
"Children are more in charge of their own learning now," she said. "They initiate activities. They're given choices, their voices are heard. Learning is something they want to do themselves."