Blue sky thinking

21st October 2011 at 01:00
The new behaviour tsar believes pilot-style checklists could help teachers to manage pupil behaviour. Hot air or help from on high? Richard Vaughan and Ed Dorrell report

How pilots ensure that their planes don't fall out of the sky does not, on the face of things at least, have much in common with how heads manage their pupils' behaviour in school.

Similarly, the fact that skyscrapers do not fall over at the slightest gust of wind would seem to have even less to do with ensuring there is discipline in the classroom.

But according to Charlie Taylor, the Department for Education's new behaviour tsar, the way pilots, builders, and even surgeons go about their daily business can have a significant impact on improving behaviour in England's schools.

The idea - which seems a little "out there" - stems from a book, The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, which has fast become an international bestseller.

A successful surgeon, Dr Gawande became interested in why thousands of patients died every year during routine operations, but in other "life and death" lines of work there were very few fatalities. Why, for example, did very few planes crash, despite the many complexities involved in flying?

The question also led the author to ponder skyscrapers and their canny knack of not collapsing. His musings led him to one answer - checklists.

Pilots - with all of their switches, buttons and flashing lights controlling extraordinarily complex technology - begin each flight with a methodical process of checking things off. The most basic things are checked. It seems extremely mundane and run-of-the-mill, but the idea is that if things do go wrong mid-flight, pilots can be sure that they have not already made elementary mistakes. In short, ticking boxes limits human error.

Dr Gawande, who is now celebrated from the Oval Office down as a policy wonk as well as a surgeon, recognised the value of his idea and put it to use in surgery. Simple actions such as washing hands, wearing a mask, counting the number of swabs, were ticked off the checklist.

It seemed simplistic to force such highly trained professionals as consultant surgeons to check such simple things. And yet, once implemented, it led to millions of dollars and, more importantly, thousands of lives being saved. It is even employed by the United Nations. A boring but revolutionary concept was born.

Now, Mr Taylor thinks he can use the same idea to tackle behaviour in schools. "What struck me about the book was that this is what happens in schools," he says. "Managing a school as a headteacher is an incredibly complicated operation. You are permanently bombarded with education stuff from both inside and outside the school and you have this list of jobs to do. The danger then is within that list of jobs you forget to do the fundamental stuff that makes a real difference."

Mr Taylor has taken a year out from being head at Willows Primary School in west London, a school that helps disaffected young children to re-enter mainstream education, in order to advise Michael Gove on behaviour.

Bringing his checklist to the table is his first real act as the new behaviour tsar and shows his understanding of being on the frontline. The list, he explains, is a menu for heads and teachers to pick and choose from, but primarily to ensure they are getting the basics right.

"It's really so people don't get stuck making the same mistakes," he says. "It's very easy to allow things to slip, particularly when things are going well.

"The best time to be thinking about behaviour is when behaviour is at its best because it is so easy to neglect it when things are going well. But behaviour is either right in our faces and making us overreact and panic, or it's not even on the radar at all. So with this list it makes sure teachers are doing the basic principles."

While checklists may conjure up visions of the clipboards and dreaded box-ticking exercises so often seen as the bureaucratic enemy of progress and innovation, The Checklist Manifesto throws the practice of box-ticking into new relief as a way of negating human fallibility.

As with Dr Gawande's simple checklist for surgeons, Mr Taylor believes his list is equally basic, containing items such as "praise good behaviour" and even the apparently blindingly obvious "know the names of all staff".

The idea that the manifesto could be the answer to the nation's problems with school discipline has been greeted with cynicism by some professionals.

"I must admit that this seems like a fairly standard list and it is very abbreviated. It is not much different to the one that most heads will send out to the SLT," according to Trevor Averre-Beeson, a highly successful inner-city head who now runs educational consultancy Lilac Sky Schools.

"If this is it - and there aren't any more bullet points to checklist - then I would say it was very disappointing. I would say if it is sent out in that form, then it is meaningless.

"For example, it says that the school rules need to be displayed in every classroom but it doesn't say what those rules should be, what language they are couched in, whether youngsters will understand them. In its current form it is not comparable with a checklist that would be carried out by a surgeon or by a pilot."

According to Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, however, the simplicity of the checklist is what will appeal to schools.

On the other hand, he has serious reservations about comparing other workplaces to schools. He says a builder counting the number of nails before and after a job to ensure some haven't gone missing - one of the simple construction site rules credited with ensuring that buildings stay upright - is entirely different from monitoring behaviour in the classroom.

"Schools love checklists, and the basic idea of this checklist is not a bad one," Mr Hobby says. "A lot of people - and this refers to outside education as well - struggle with the abstract, so if you can show what it means in practice, then people can understand it better.

"But while I agree with checklists, it may be easier to create a checklist for building a skyscraper than it is for teaching.

"The list is a mix of the very tangible and the very abstract. For instance, it is easy to count the number of swabs used at the beginning and end of an operation, but it is not so easy to tick off 'model the behaviour you want to see from your staff'."

Mr Taylor's idea is not without its supporters, though. Paul Haigh, director of the Hallam Teaching School Alliance at Notre Dame High School in Sheffield, says the checklist was what was needed for many of the country's schools, but warned that, for it to succeed, the list must be followed - a key part of the original checklist manifesto.

"Any successful head in the country could have compiled the checklist," Mr Haigh says. "But what we often find is that the problems come when staff don't follow the procedure - consistency is key.

"When staff don't follow the procedure, school leaders have to ask themselves why. If a minority of staff don't follow a system others are using perfectly well, the fault is with that minority. But when a majority isn't following it, the system itself is at fault."

This is where the checklist could prove invaluable. Too often, Mr Haigh adds, the systems put in place by schools are too complex and need to be simplified.

This, then, is the core of Dr Gawande's brainwave - and at the core of Mr Taylor's policy. Keep it simple, keep the checklist to hand, and keep on ticking.

Will it work? If it does, Dr Gawande could soon become celebrated on this side of the pond, too.


Join Charlie Taylor, the Government's expert adviser on behaviour in schools, in the DfE forum on for a QA session on Tuesday 25 October between 1-2pm. Please post your questions for Mr Taylor at



Ensure absolute clarity about expected standard of pupils' behaviour.

Behaviour policy clearly understood by all staff, parents and pupils.

School rules displayed in all classes; staff and pupils know what they are.

Tariff of sanctions and rewards displayed in each class.

System in place for ensuring children never miss out on sanctions or rewards.


Model the behaviour you want to see from your staff.


Visit the lunch hall, playground and be around at the start and end of the day.

Ensure senior leaders are visible around the school.

Check pupils come in from the playground and move around the school in an orderly manner.

Check up on behaviour outside the school.

Check the building is clean and well-maintained.


Know the names of all staff.

Praise the good performance of staff.

Act to deal with staff who fail to follow the behaviour policy.


Praise good behaviour.

Celebrate success.


Monitor the amount of praise, rewards and punishments given by individual staff.

Ensure staff praise good behaviour and work.

Ensure staff understand pupils' special needs.

Individual pupils

Have plans for pupils likely to misbehave and ensure staff are aware of them.

Suitable support in place for pupils with behavioural difficulties.


Build positive relationships with the parents of pupils with behaviour difficulties.

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