Editorial - Put down the blunt instruments and get nuanced

18th June 2010 at 01:00
Bad behaviour's multiple causes and manifestations require a subtle, intelligent response

This week The TES is launching a short series on behaviour. Some might feel a brief engagement with such a broad and perennial problem cannot do it justice. They would be right. It cannot. Still, we feel that much of the debate has been shanghaied by competing camps eager to prove either that behaviour is so improved Pollyanna would go unremarked, or that it is deteriorating so rapidly the young Caligula would feel at home in most Year 10 classrooms.

The trouble with that battle isn't only that inconvenient facts become casualties, but also that it has zero chance of being resolved: it cannot be proved conclusively one way or the other. A far better question is how poor behaviour affects schools now and what they can do to address it. Terry Haydn kicks off the series with a look at behaviour in the classroom (pages 22-23). Next week we consider the issue at an institutional level and the week after we move beyond the school gates to assess the influences that are shaping pupils' lives today.

As you would expect, each of our experts has his own views, but certain overlapping conclusions emerge. The first is that poor behaviour is a complex issue with multiple causes and manifestations. Knee-jerk responses that try to legislate the problem away with blunt and ill-considered laws are not only foolish but useless. Fining the families of persistent truants or abolishing appeals for excluded pupils, for instance, may do wonders for politicians' vanity, but they do little or nothing to tackle poor behaviour.

The second is that while it may be pointless asking if children today are worse behaved than their parents or grandparents, the ways they misbehave and the manner in which society treats them are certainly different. Fifty years ago, truanting was largely confined to boys, cyberbullying was unheard of and divorce was almost as exotic. Children had few rights, and were certainly unaware of those they did have, and teachers had the freedom to discipline in a manner that would appal most of us now. Strategies to tackle bad behaviour, therefore, have to be intelligent and nuanced. We cannot flog our way back to some imagined past.

The third conclusion is that while some schools undoubtedly have more challenging intakes than others, even the most privileged schools and the most experienced teachers confront behavioural problems regularly. It is extremely difficult for teachers to achieve relaxed and assured control all the time with every class.

Yet the final point must be: don't despair. However insuperable the challenges appear, there are steps teachers can take to reduce and eliminate unacceptable behaviour. Simple, consistent, clear and relentless tactics that stress the link between effective teaching and good behaviour and that are adopted by the entire school can and do make a difference.

Whether society appreciates the effort involved is another matter. But if it doesn't learn to, it will never get the education system it thinks it deserves.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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