Pupil behaviour: Teachers the target of government clampdown

9th October 2009 at 01:00
The Government wants to clamp down on bad behaviour. But watch out - it's schools not pupils that face punitive measures. Kerra Maddern reports

Original paper headline: Mr Balls would like to see you in his office.

It's time to get tough and crack down on bad behaviour - but teachers, not pupils, are the target of a new campaign to make sure schools are havens of tranquility. Debates about the best way to deal with unruly children are as old as education itself, but the Government has still managed to find a new initiative, and it involves punishment for schools that are considered not good enough.

From the withholding of funds to more regular Ofsted visits, those with only "satisfactory" behaviour will become the focus of attention this year. But it's the definition of what's acceptable that is likely to be most controversial.

Are your students generally polite and well behaved? Do staff tackle any issues promptly to ensure others are not disrupted? Is behaviour orderly? Are social areas calm and safe, with fighting, swearing and the challenging of authority rare? Unfortunately that's only satisfactory. Congratulations, you can expect pressure from central and local government to improve, warnings if this doesn't happen and the loss of grants.

So what exactly is "good" behaviour - the standard all primary and secondaries will have to reach by 2012? The answer: teachers should use their skills to engage actively, as well as to interact "well" with pupils. Children should make a "strong contribution to good learning" in lessons and join in activities at break, lunchtime and after school, with minimal name-calling and bullying.

This new behaviour guidance was released to coincide with the Labour Party conference speech of Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, last week, and as a result of Sir Alan Steer's major report on the issue published this year.

Consequently, Mr Balls has been accused of political posturing, but it's clear he means business and the diktat will apply whoever wins the next election - despite experts being concerned at the "heavy handed" approach. He has written to all local authorities with his orders, particularly those with high numbers of schools rated "satisfactory".

New legislation will allow councils to hold back the improvement element of budgets if School Improvement Partners don't think schools are "addressing" behaviour issues or "giving them sufficient priority".

Teachers would have to "accept support" from the local behaviour and attendance partnership and the local authority.

If a school is rated "satisfactory" after two inspections, further action will be taken. Failure to improve will lead to warnings and ominously sounding "further intervention". The Secretary of State will also have new powers to order local authorities to issue warning notices.

So what's behind this approach? According to Ofsted, behaviour in schools has never been better, a view shared by Sir Alan. Even the Department for Children, Schools and Families says everyone has worked hard. But satisfactory is now just not good enough, and the DCSF says further improvements are "not sufficiently high up the agenda of some local authorities and some schools".

Mr Balls is writing to all councils to impress this need for priority. Those first in line for attention are those where a high proportion of schools have satisfactory behaviour and there has been "insufficient improvement".

"We expect these local authorities to drive a significant and sustained increase in the number of their schools graded `good' for behaviour," the guidance says.

The get-tough approach has been extended to parents, who are being reminded of the sanctions they can face if their child misbehaves through a new leaflet delivered to their door. But it's teachers who are going to have to do the hard lifting to satisfy the new standards. Philip Garner, who runs Behaviour4Learning, a Government-backed resource for newly trained teachers, believes everyone in education is sick of schools being made a "scapegoat" for the ills of society.

"This political berating is just so monotonous," he says. "Bad behaviour is an infinitesimally small part of how schools function. Realistically, about 0.01 per cent of children get so upset they decide to kick out a bit. Most schools already take the issue very seriously, and if the Government doesn't realise that, it's living in a parallel universe.

"In the past 12 years there have been really good initiatives that have improved and saved children's lives. I wish politicians would talk about those instead."

Fintan O'Regan, former teacher turned education guru, who now runs training courses, agrees that behaviour is not a major issue at the moment.

"Teachers today have to deal with enormous challenges, but bad behaviour is not a whole-school problem," he said. "We must also remember that children are only in school for about 20 per cent of the time. Communities and parents are just as responsible, and I doubt many of them would get `good' or `outstanding' Ofsted reports if they were inspected."

Standards of behaviour have increased over the past 10 years, with the number of schools where behaviour is a significant concern at the lowest levels ever recorded - from 8 per cent in 199798 to 2 per cent in 200708. The proportion of secondary schools judged "good" or better was 72 per cent in 199798, and is on track to reach around 80 per cent in 200809, despite a tougher Ofsted inspection regime.

The vast majority of primary schools - 93 per cent - are already rated "good" or better on behaviour, but one in five secondary schools is not. The DCSF says that progress has also been uneven across the country. There is a strong correlation between achievement in schools and behaviour.

Mr Balls' advice to those awaiting an inspection is to set "high expectation" in manners and personal appearance. He believes that a smart uniform helps to enforce authority.

"Classrooms need to be environments where pupils engage and are positive about learning, so that they have better attitudes, are respectful of others' views and want to achieve to a high standard," he said. "I want this for every single pupil in every school.

"Heads and teachers must be congratulated for the vast improvements in school behaviour over recent years, but we must go further because good behaviour is crucial to improving children's overall achievement. I want all `satisfactory' rated schools to make behaviour a priority because there is a vital link to improving overall standards. Children deserve to learn in a school that makes behaviour a priority."

Those who don't meet Mr Balls' standards will face a tough ride. Ofsted will not give a school the much sought-after "good" or "outstanding" grades if behaviour is not up to scratch. And those who achieve "satisfactory" face yearly visits from inspectors. The new school report card will also include a behaviour rating, with the aim of making teachers more accountable to parents.

It is estimated that 98 per cent of schools are now part of behaviour and attendance partnerships, which help to manage unruly pupils. All primary and secondaries will now have to get involved in the partnerships, which will include at least one ranked "good" or "outstanding" to lead the rest. There will also be a national network of "lead behaviour" schools who will provide support and advice to others.

Exclusion will remain a tool for heads when situations get beyond redemption. Minimum standards for pupil referral units are being drawn up, and Vernon Coaker, schools minister, has promised legislation to provide full-time education for expelled pupils - despite the fact this already exists.

"We know that teachers have got a lot better at managing pupil behaviour and addressing problems before they reach crisis point," he said. "But sometimes exclusion is the right option, and for those young people who are permanently excluded we must make sure they have suitable and specialist support to progress."

Heads taking in this new approach to behaviour should adopt a more "can- do" attitude, according to Sir Alan Steer, whose views have shaped much of the policy.

"We need consistent minimum standards across the country, which is why it's important for schools to work in partnership," he said. "I do think the vast majority of schools do a really good job, but we should also be intolerant of bad standards. If we can't sort it out, we are not giving children the sort of chances they deserve in life. But we also need to understand that children are children, and they are going to make mistakes."

Behaviour4Learning's Mr Garner thinks bad behaviour is just experimentation and a sign that a child hasn't learnt all the rules yet. More mainstream primary and secondaries are taking children with learning difficulties and social, behavioural and emotional problems, he adds, so if Ofsted says problems are not widespread, this means that teachers are doing a very good job indeed.

"Given the issues in society, the changing nature of the family and the huge pressures on children now, as well as the impact of the media and peers, schools can't win," he said.

While GCSE results have soared, the number of children leaving with no qualifications has not budged in the past decade. According to Mr O'Regan, this shows there will always be a small number of pupils who remain unmoved by government initiatives.

"This doesn't mean you stop trying, but there are always some `unreachables', however hard you work," he said.

"The good news is school leadership has never been better, with heads young and enthusiastic. But inclusion has put children with special needs in mainstream schools, and it doesn't always work."

But Mr O'Regan says teachers can play a part. He thinks a small number just don't have the correct people skills to be able to control a classroom, and more should be done to screen before the start of training courses.

With obstacles such as personality and background to cope with, improving behaviour will be a hard task for teachers. It remains to be seen if the Government will keep up this pressure for change, or if it will be distracted by forthcoming political events.

What exactly is `good' in the eyes of Ofsted?

  • Ensure children and parents are clear about the limits of acceptable behaviour. Spot potential bad behaviour early and intervene quickly. Involve parents fully and give help with underlying barriers to learning.
  • Know the full extent of legal powers and use them wisely. Have a strong relationship with local police and work with them to ensure children behave well outside school as well, including on public transport.
  • Never tolerate classroom disruption and take swift action with children who misbehave to get them back on track, using a range of graduated approaches.

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