Beyond Scotland - Steering a new course on pupil behaviour

1st May 2009 at 01:00
But is optimism about classroom discipline in England over the top? Kerra Maddern reports

The government's behaviour tsar south of the border came like a lamb to the slaughter, pleading the need to celebrate increasingly good behaviour in schools when teachers were furiously arguing the opposite.

With unfortunate timing, Sir Alan Steer's call for excellence in the classroom - the result of a four-year investigation - came out during the teaching union conference season, when school staff were giving disturbing accounts of a breakdown in school discipline, citing examples of chairs being thrown, kicking, punching and spitting, as well as verbal abuse.

Sir Alan even went with English Schools Secretary Ed Balls to NASUWT's recent conference to launch his final report on how to achieve further improvement in school behaviour. Mr Balls has accepted all the recommendations in Learning Behaviour: Lesson Learned, despite the fact some could be expensive.

However, it is not the cost that has attracted criticism; it is Sir Alan's optimism.

The former secondary school headteacher - now a pro-director at London University's Institute of Education - was adamant that young people should not be treated as the enemy or demonised, but he argued that the implications of not tackling misdemeanours could be serious for communities. The key, he believes, is excellent classroom practice.

"Children learn how to behave, so adults have a responsibility to teach them and help them behave properly, so they become full members of society," he told The TES. "If we get this wrong, society is going to pay. But I don't think there is a crisis in behaviour at school; most children are great.

"Childhood is going to be the time when people make mistakes and the key thing is to deal with this in an intelligent way.

"There are widely different views held on behaviour, but all the evidence I have seen says it is getting better. There is a danger of demonising young people and this creates more problems."

Jules Donaldson, who has taught for nearly 40 years, told the NASUWT conference that low-level disruption is the biggest issue for teachers. "Most bad behaviour doesn't take all the headlines, just violent incidents, which thankfully are rare," he said.

"The key thing is for schools to have clear behaviour policies and then for pupils and parents to be aware of them and what is expected," said Mr Donaldson, who is on secondment from his job in Sandwell, in the West Midlands, working as a union health and safety representative.

"When these expectations are not met, the child must know it will be dealt with.

"I think what's changed is respect. In the past, if you spoke to a parent about their child's behaviour, you knew they would be prepared to support you, whereas now they just say they can't do anything with their son or daughter. They forget their child spends much more time at home than at school.

"What teachers want is for parents to set clear benchmarks in the first few years of their lives, so they come to lessons ready to behave."

Sir Alan argued that early identification of learning difficulties, followed by "effective intervention", would prevent much disruption in the classroom. He has called for more time to develop newly-qualified teachers' skills and continuing professional development for all school staff in recognising special educational needs and in behaviour management.

An Ofsted survey last year noted that a child's inability to learn could lead to bad behaviour. Because of this, Sir Alan would like the Training and Development Agency for Schools to investigate whether courses really prepare people to manage disruption and teach children with special needs or a disability.

This is all good news for the next generation of teachers, but many trainees are surprised by how pleasant most children are, said Philip Garner, a teacher trainer at Northampton University. "I think most students go into the classroom for the first time with a healthy sense of foreboding, but what they find is not what they expected.

"One recently told me: `I can't see what all the fuss is about'," said Professor Garner, who also runs the website Behaviour4 Learning, which gives tips on behaviour management.

"I think a lot of the complaint about behaviour is another aspect of the profession wanting to beat itself up all the time. I've worked in tough areas and been head of a specialist setting for disadvantaged children and not experienced danger at any point.

"If it's that bad, NQTs would never go on to become teachers."

But others say Sir Alan, who was headteacher of Seven Kings High in Redbridge, Essex, for 23 years, has spent too long away from the chalkface.

"It's obvious he ran a tight ship, but he was there for a long time and that must make it hard for him to be objective," said Fintan O'Regan, an academic, charity director, former specialist school headteacher and behaviour consultant. "His advice could be seen as prescriptive."

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