Give us a break so we can really tackle behaviour

24th April 2009 at 01:00

Ah, yes, behaviour. How could we possibly talk about schools or young people without lamenting standards of behaviour?

Take this complaint: "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

That was Plato in 4th century BC. Even if you dispute that quote, as some academics do, you can find similar complaints from Hesiod in the 8th century BC and older ones on Egyptian tombs.

So how refreshing that in Sir Alan Steer's report on behaviour for the Government, he writes a sentence that I can't remember seeing before: "There is strong evidence from a range of sources that the overall standards of behaviour achieved by schools is good and has improved in recent years."

Blimey! You wouldn't read that in The Daily Mail. Then Sir Alan slips in a classic example of innocent understatement: "In this review I have made a large number of recommendations."

There are 47 to be precise. And while many of these will strike even the most flint-hearted sceptic as welcome common sense, the process of governments commissioning and then rubber-stamping reports raises some important questions for those of us expected to implement them.

The report itself is measured, thoughtful, practical but also dauntingly lengthy - 202 pages in total. It proposes much that is non-controversial: consistent behaviour standards across the school, better initial teacher training and sharing of good practice between schools, more support to parents who need more support, behaviour partnerships to be taken more seriously, and for every school to have a withdrawal room (or, as we rather provocatively call ours, an "exclusion" room).

But in the time-dishonoured manner of modern government, the report was released to coincide with Ed Balls' speech at the NASUWT conference. The morning news programmes therefore trailed stories about how "teams of behaviour experts" would be sent into schools in England where behaviour is rated as merely "satisfactory".

This left many of us wondering when did "satisfactory" undergo a form of linguistic sex change, and who exactly are these teams of experts? Because if all the past few years' talk of system leadership has taught us anything, it's that there's no on-demand cavalry waiting to ride to the rescue. Indeed, the last thing we need are more experts or consultants from outside schools telling those of us inside them how we could do better.

So in presentational terms, "teams of experts" and "satisfactory means unsatisfactory" appeared to be the two main strands of the report.

But as Whitehall had embargoed the report until Ed Balls' speech at 2pm, all we could do was to play a game of Chinese whispers, basing comments on a small but hyped-up part of the report.

That's unhelpful. A mammoth report is published which the Government tells us is Really Very Important because all 47 of its recommendations are being accepted in full. All the main news outlets are covering it. Yet those of us who will end up implementing half of them can't read it or make meaningful comment. Instead, it's left to the pundits in the papers or talk-show hosts to set a narrowed news agenda.

And this is just one among many documents. According to John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the Department for Children, Schools and Families undertook 79 policy consultations in 2008 and looks set to exceed that in 2009. And if each policy document made 47 recommendations and each of those was accepted in full, quite where would we be?

Because the reality for us in schools is that our day job is teaching and learning. The workforce reform agenda has rationalised meetings by teachers to one per week of an hour's length. This includes parents evenings, staff meetings and meetings of the different teams to which teachers belong. Taking just one small but significant recommendation of the Behaviour Review - developing and consulting upon a whole-school teaching and learning policy - is likely to require several hours if we're to get it properly into the school's bloodstream.

Which is fine because it's an important issue. But how do we know that the next report - on, say, modernising the workforce, improving literacy, safeguarding or whatever - won't be clutched to the Secretary of State's breast with the same urgent passion and an exhortation to make it happen?

So in welcoming Sir Alan Steer's report, we should be saying let's implement this one properly. Let's shake off the irksome educational habits of half doing things. If sorting behaviour is the priority, then let's make it the focus of a year's work.

After all, if we can improve the quality of behaviour across classrooms and schools, then we'll have achieved something transformational. Because, as Plato didn't say, "Less is more".

Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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