Reaping rewards

26th October 2012 at 01:00
A values-based approach to pupil behavior is paying off for heads and teachers - but support staff say `must do better'

If ever a report had a clear message, it was the Scottish national behaviour survey published earlier this month: the way pupils comport themselves has been improving since the first such survey in 2006, with trends "almost all in a positive direction".

The evidence in Behaviour in Scottish Schools 2012 is compelling. It shows that not only has behaviour improved but that this has happened in tandem with enlightened, values-based approaches which are moving further away from the punitive sanctions of old.

Yet the picture in the report is not entirely rosy. There is a sense of support staff left isolated and toiling, as inclusion policies present them with heavy new demands. And secondary teachers have not quite bought into progressive methods in the way that their heads and primary colleagues have.

The big picture is clearly encouraging: "Overall, both primary and secondary staff were very positive about pupils' behaviour. They felt that most pupils were well behaved all or most of the time, and only a very small minority of pupils were quite disruptive."

It may seem counter-intuitive, with much of the media fixated on supposedly feral and feckless youth. Indeed, coverage of this year's survey generally homed in on problems, failing to make clear that things had, on the whole, improved.

School staff believe that both low-level and serious disruptive behaviour in the classroom have decreased since 2006. The reduction in low-level disruptive behaviour in other parts of the school is even more pronounced. And most specific sub-categories of positive behaviour are seen as having improved or stayed the same since 2006, with few exceptions.

This is not overnight success. A crucial building block was the former Scottish Executive's 2001 Better Behaviour - Better Learning report, described as a "game-changer" by Raymond Soltysek, a behaviour expert at the University of Strathclyde: "It brought behaviour to the fore as an integral part of the professional development of teachers."

The report underlined that there were "no easy solutions or quick-fixes", that improvement in behaviour required "sustained effort and commitment over a considerable period of time".

It was only two decades since the abolition of corporal punishment, but here was a document that concluded with seven bullet points for improving behaviour that eschewed - explicitly, at any rate - punitive measures of any description.

Better behaviour instead came down to imperatives such as "high-quality learning and teaching"; "participation in decision-making by teachers, pupils and parentscarers"; "holistic support through multi- disciplinary approaches"; and the "importance of teachers having and sharing high expectations with children and young people".

Those conclusions percolate through Behaviour in Scottish Schools 2012, the latest version of the national survey published every three years, for which Ipsos Mori's combination of qualitative and quantitative research included surveys of 4,898 school staff.

The "promotion of positive behaviour through whole-school ethos and values" is largely seen by staff as the most helpful approach. Staff are far more likely to refer to "relationships" than "behaviour management" or "indiscipline" when talking about how they deal with negative behaviour.

Mr Soltysek, partnership, pedagogy and placement learning module leader (secondary), believes the improvement lies in schools' growing "awareness that behaviour management is part of the whole learning process, not a bolt-on".

Schools are now thinking more about the general school population, he says, rather than reacting to the misdeeds of supposed ne'er-do-wells. Only very small numbers of school staff surveyed thought punishment exercises, detention or exclusion were among the best ways to encourage good behaviour. Out of 29 different approaches, "promotion of positive behaviour through whole-school ethos and values" was considered the most effective, by teachers and heads at both primary and secondary level.

Pupils' opinions have become "very important", says Mr Soltysek. "There's much more of a sense of pupils being part of the whole school community."

Primary heads are the group most enthused by whole-school ethos and values-based approaches: 80 per cent listed this as one of the three most effective strategies in fostering good behaviour.

In her five years as headteacher, Gillian Purves of Falkirk's Victoria Primary has seen exclusions in the school - with a roll of just over 300 - go from 30 in a year to very few. There have been none so far this year.

"I would say a lot of behaviour issues come from downright boredom," says Ms Purves, an executive member of primary heads and deputes' union AHDS.

The school places more emphasis now on finding the type of learning that sparks children's imaginations: some children who had been uninterested at school became engrossed in a bicycle-recycling project; pupils who went to see the musical We Will Rock You in Edinburgh, some of whom had barely ever left Falkirk, were inspired to take part in their own production.

Punishments are still necessary at times but staff try to figure out what works, rather than falling back on blanket approaches. Support staff, whose presence in the playground makes them keen observers of what motivates pupils, are relied on heavily. A boy who is too rough at football, for example, will sit on the sidelines for a "time-out" and watch his friends enjoy the game, which proves more effective than sending him inside for a punishment exercise. Restorative work at the school can entail children deciding their own punishments.

Ms Purves highlights the importance of consistent approaches across authorities, and the support she has had from quality improvement officers. Schools are better equipped to deal with behaviour, thanks in no small part to the less prescriptive approaches encouraged by Curriculum for Excellence, she says, but believes progress could still be made.

The picture is less clear-cut in secondary schools. While there has been a similar change in philosophy, classroom teachers are not converts in the same way that senior managers are; nor do they feel they have been prepared well enough.

Only 46 per cent see whole-school ethos and values as one of the three most effective ways to encourage good behaviour, compared with 66 per cent of headteachers and 74 per cent of primary teachers.

Some 29 per cent of secondary teachers have never been involved in whole- school planning in relation to discipline and positive behaviour, more than twice the proportion of primary teachers who say that. And only 45 per cent of secondary teachers felt they received effective training in behaviour-management approaches used in their school, compared with 63 per cent of primary teachers.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan, formerly a secondary English teacher, responded to the behaviour survey with a dig at tabloid hyperbole about serious violent incidents - which are extremely rare - but did not play down the issue of lower-level indiscipline, such as verbal abuse, misuse of mobile phones and a refusal to follow instructions.

The "unacceptable behaviour" of a small minority of pupils "continues to blight the working lives of teachers, and damage the educational experience for the majority of pupils," he says.

Alan Robertson, chairman of the Voice union's Scottish executive committee, and another secondary teacher, also shone a light on problems behind the overall positive message.

"More and more low-level disruption, such as the use of mobile phones and MP3 players, is causing a problem for most teachers and dealing with such issues often leads to confrontation," he says.

"All of the new policies and training available to teachers means that such issues are expected to be dealt with in the classroom. Referrals up the system are often met with a response from senior management of, `If this is happening in your classroom, what are you doing about it?'"

Caroline Amos, headteacher at the 1,060-pupil Paisley Grammar, believes improving behaviour is a "gradual process of consultation and discussion", with an emphasis on building relationships and investing in training for all staff.

As part of that process each subject in the Renfrewshire school did an action research project through The Motivated School, a programme devised by former Glasgow principal psychologist Alan McLean, which allows teachers space for reflection and encourages the sharing of ideas.

One of the benefits of this type of work at Paisley Grammar has been a big improvement in achievement by looked-after children, for which Miss Amos believes staff's changing approaches to behaviour are largely responsible.

She reframes the concept of behaviour: pupils who transgress are viewed less as perpetrators and more as people in need of help.

"Some of these kids have got significant additional support needs, and one of these is behaviour," she says. "Every child has a right to be here, and it's up to us to put the support in."

Such changes are reflected at a national level. What was once the Positive Behaviour Team recently changed its name to the Rights, Support and Well- being Team, now based at Education Scotland. It has existed under various guises since 2006, the year of the first national behaviour survey, and education officer Maggie Fallon believes the big-picture approach it espoused has been central to improvement nationally.

The sidelining of words such as "discipline" and "behaviour" reflects a growing focus on "positive relationships", a move away from reacting to a minority of pupils' misdeeds to pre-emptively addressing the whole school, she says: "When you talk about relationships, that involves everybody."

It is an approach she believes most effective when consistently applied throughout a local authority. One of the most significant moves by the team - whose formation was partly driven by a desire to counter newspaper headlines about misbehaviour in schools - was asking each of the 32 councils to appoint a "link officer" to support schools. Since the team was formed, it has changed emphasis and now provides less direct training: "Our role has become very much to drive capacity in local authorities."

"We are past the tipping point with primary schools," she says; their size and typically more intimate settings make changing approaches to behaviour less of a crunching gear shift than in secondaries.

She acknowledges that secondary teachers are taking longer to be won round by whole-school, pre-emptive approaches. Showing that it actually works is crucial, explains Mrs Fallon. Anecdotal evidence tends to wash over secondary staff, but they sit up and take notice when presented with compelling evidence from attachment theory and brain science. She is confident that more secondary teachers will have been convinced by 2015, when the next survey will be published.

For Caroline Amos at Paisley Grammar, the verdict is already clear: "You can't separate behaviour management from good learning and teaching. If what you're doing in the classroom is good, and positively engages the children, you're 90 per cent of the way there."

Full report: http:bit.lyPvEonq

Support staff: `an easy target'

The overall improvement in behaviour in Scottish schools has one big exception: between 2006 and 2012 there has been an increase in both primary and secondary support staff encountering a number of different types of low-level disruptive behaviour.

When it comes to specific types of low-level disruption in the classroom, primary teachers have seen only "talking out of turn" get worse and secondary teachers believe only use of mobiles is worse than in 2006.

Support staff tell a very different story: only 8 per cent of secondary support staff believe all or almost all children are generally well behaved during lessons, compared with 33 per cent of secondary teachers and 53 per cent of secondary heads. Primary support staff, similarly, have a less rosy take than colleagues, although the difference is not as wide as in secondaries.

In secondary schools, support staff report that getting out of seats without permission and unnecessary noise are growing problems, as well as mobile phones. In primary schools, they report an increasing problem with "unnecessary noise", "hindering other pupils", getting out of seats without permission, and punctuality, as well as talking out of turn.

The situation does not seem likely to get easier for support staff. The survey shows that schools are seeing a small but increasing number of children entering P1 with complex difficulties, including nurture and attachment issues. In both primaries and secondaries there are perceived increases in severe mental health issues, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autistic spectrum disorders.

The Voice union's Alan Robertson stresses that, while it "fully supports" integration in schools, "there is a definite change in the atmosphere of a classroom" when pupils have mental health issues such as those highlighted in the behaviour survey. "This becomes more obvious in practical subjects where by S3-4 some classes will have up to 50 per cent of the pupils with extra needs," he adds.

Meanwhile, councils are considering once-unthinkable cuts, and support staff numbers are not protected nationally in the way teachers' are. Last month North Lanarkshire revealed it was considering cutting another 15 additional support needs assistants, and closing nurture groups - equivalent to a further 15 jobs.

School Leaders Scotland general secretary Ken Cunningham foresees trouble: "Sadly, at present it does seem as if classroom assistants are easy targets for cuts in these challenging times," he says.

The survey's finding of overall improvement is accepted by Ken Matthews, regional organiser for Unison - but he also stresses that the scenario sketched out in the report by support staff, who spend whole days with children with complex needs, is markedly different.

He is concerned, too, that there is a "two-tier response": if a member of support staff reports struggling to cope with challenging pupils, help is less forthcoming than for other school staff, according to his members.

These staff feel "torn", he says: they take pride in their work with these children and have a great sense of duty, so often decide not to pipe up when problems arise.

The union is squarely behind inclusion policies, but Mr Matthews adds: "Nobody should be in a working environment that's intimidating or where they're under threat. Everybody has the right to be supported."

Help may be on its way. Maggie Fallon, of Education Scotland's Rights, Support and Well-being team, says that the possibility of extra training for support staff is being explored as part of a national action plan on behaviour to be published early next year.

Original headline: Gold stars for behaviour as it improves across the country


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