So, Gavin, behaviour has got better...and also worse?

The education secretary is like an ineffective NQT using scattergun threats to impress leadership, says Kester Brewin

Kester Brewin

I'm confused, Gavin Williamson - is behaviour better or worse in schools, asks Kester Brewin

Has behaviour in schools got better or worse recently? You might well have been distracted by your phone, so can be forgiven for some confusion on the matter, but Gavin Williamson has been gushing that “behaviour and discipline have really improved over the last year.” 

Which must be why yesterday he introduced a big push on discipline. Why? Because even though over the past year remote learning has been "a tremendous success", it has been clear that "the lack of regular structure and discipline" would "inevitably" have had an effect on pupil behaviour.

So it’s got better, but has also got worse. Still following?

Gavin Williamson and behaviour: 'So much total clarity my eyes hurt'

One of the reasons cited for the (non)improvement in discipline is the problem of mobile phones, and the amorphous bogeyman of “social media”. Here, again, the secretary of state finds it tricky to decide whether he thinks technology in the classroom is good for learning or not. As he put it yesterday, he “supports its use”, but also believes that it’s “time to put screens away”. 

As he continues: "Let’s be totally clear here. We are not talking about the controlled use of a tablet or a laptop in class, as part of a lesson; this is about creating a calm and orderly environment where everyone can learn. I know that parents understand the difference and they, too, believe the school day is a time for learning.”

I’m experiencing so much total clarity here, it’s making my eyes hurt. Parents also believe that the school day is a time for learning? Parents and…teachers? Parents and…Mr Williamson? One slightly gets the feeling that he smashed out these sentences while watching 100 Greatest Fails on YouTube and keeping up with his Snaps. 

To try to make sense of this dog’s dinner of statements, what I think is happening here is this: Mr Williamson has been trying to please different sides of the debate about behaviour while simultaneously coming across as a successful secretary of state. But, in attempting to preach to the Cabinet, the readers of right-wing press and to teachers across the country, what he’s communicated has been at best opaque and at worst contradictory. 

To please the Conservative rank and file, Williamson promotes students sitting in rows, facing the front and parading in silence through corridors. But, knowing that this will be met with exasperation by those who work in education, he then backtracks and softens and says that heads will be free to make their own judgements but – guess what – then levers parents into things again, explaining that they “would expect children to be in orderly rows or groups”.

Sadly, this is the kind of weak leadership we have become used to. The impression I can’t throw off is of Williamson as the ineffective NQT who tries to act tough by using a scattergun of threats, and then spends the lesson gradually having to retreat from them. Such an approach is designed to impress those in power above him, rather than to benefit those in his care.

We deserve more from our secretary of state

Williamson famously keeps a bullwhip and a tarantula on his desk. But for those of us who’ve worked in schools where behaviour is very challenging, these symbols of power and domination are grossly unhelpful. We are not in the business of scaring children into behaving, nor creating a climate of fear in our classrooms. 

His linking poor behaviour in classrooms to mobile phone use perhaps brings this rather chaotic approach into focus most sharply. Williamson knows that this plays well to the Conservative gallery, who are too quick to impeach teenagers as brain-fried miscreants who do nothing but stare into screens. No phones! he announces.

Yet the vast majority of schools already have a well-established and sensible policy on phone use during school hours – and, as we have all discovered over this past year, there are some situations where phones can be brilliant classroom tools. OK, I’ll leave it to heads’ discretion! he immediately cedes.

These political games have to stop. The exams fiasco last year came about precisely because Williamson was determined to act strong to please those who would moan that “exams are getting easier”, but then found himself forced into a U-turn when the reality of the impact on actual students became clear. 

This is the man who, as defence secretary, proposed attaching “really expensive guns to tractors” to overcome an armoured-vehicle shortage; who suggested splatting the Spanish navy with paintballs to show them what for over Gibraltar; and who told Russia to “go away and shut up”, when diplomatic relations had soured over the Salisbury poisonings.

These are not considered positions, and this tendency to blurt makes life very difficult for those on the front line.

The same is true in education. The use of digital technologies in the classroom is a complex and nuanced issue, and connections into behaviour management and issues of cyberbullying are not straightforward. Students sometimes poke one another with pencils, and pass notes around the classroom. Should we grandly announce a ban on paper and pens? 

What we need from the Department for Education is – no surprises here – the same as we’d expect of any classroom teacher: consistent and thoughtful leadership. That has to start with Williamson.

Preaching to the choir one way and then climbing down and retreating when faced with reality would earn harsh judgement in any classroom observation, because it leads to confusion and division. Our sector deserves more from its secretary of state. 

Serving the best interests of this country’s children after such a torrid year means being respectful of them, thanking them for the ways in which they have coped with such enormous interruptions to their learning. They should come first. Trying to gain kudos from hardline elements of his own party should be a distant second.

Kester Brewin has taught mathematics across a wide variety of schools for the past 20 years. He tweets as @kesterbrewin

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