Steer tells alarmists to behave themselves

24th April 2009 at 01:00
But is Sir Alan's optimism about classroom discipline over the top? Kerra Maddern reports

The government's behaviour tsar came like a lamb to the slaughter, pleading the need to celebrate increasingly good behaviour in schools when teachers were furiously arguing the opposite.

With unfortunate timing, Sir Alan Steer's call for excellence in the classroom - the result of a four-year investigation - came out during the teaching union conference season, when school staff were giving disturbing accounts of a breakdown in school discipline, citing examples of chairs being thrown, kicking, punching and spitting, as well as verbal abuse.

Sir Alan even went with Ed Balls to last week's NASUWT conference to launch his final report on how to achieve further improvement in school behaviour. The Schools Secretary has accepted all the recommendations in "Learning Behaviour: Lesson Learned", despite the fact some could be expensive.

However, it is not the cost that has attracted criticism; it is Sir Alan's optimism.

The former secondary school headteacher - now a pro-director at London University's Institute of Education - was adamant that young people should not be treated as the enemy or demonised, but he argued that the implications of not tackling misdemeanours could be serious for communities. The key, he believes, is excellent classroom practice.

"Children learn how to behave, so adults have a responsibility to teach them and help them behave properly so they become full members of society," he told The TES. "If we get this wrong, society is going to pay.

"But I don't think there is a crisis in behaviour at school; most children are great.

"Childhood is going to be the time when people make mistakes and the key thing is to deal with this in an intelligent way.

"There are widely different views held on behaviour, but all the evidence I have seen says it is getting better.

"There is a danger of demonising young people and this creates more problems."

Jules Donaldson, who has taught for nearly 40 years, told the NASUWT conference that low-level disruption is the biggest issue for teachers. "Most bad behaviour doesn't take all the headlines, just violent incidents, which thankfully are rare," he told The TES.

"The key thing is for schools to have clear behaviour policies and then for pupils and parents to be aware of them and what is expected," said Mr Donaldson, who is on secondment from his job in Sandwell, in the West Midlands, working as a union health and safety representative.

"When these expectations are not met the child must know it will be dealt with.

"I think what's changed is respect. In the past, if you spoke to a parent about their child's behaviour you knew they would be prepared to support you whereas now they just say they can't do anything with their son or daughter. They forget their child spends much more time at home than at school.

"What teachers want is for parents to set clear benchmarks in the first few years of their lives so they come to lessons ready to behave."

Sir Alan argued that early identification of learning difficulties, followed by "effective intervention", would prevent much disruption in the classroom. He has called for more time to develop newly qualified teachers' skills and continuing professional development for all school staff in recognising special educational needs and in behaviour management.

An Ofsted survey last year noted that a child's inability to learn could lead to bad behaviour. Because of this, Sir Alan would like the Training and Development Agency for Schools to investigate whether courses really prepare people to manage disruption and teach children with special needs or a disability.

This is all good news for the next generation of teachers, but many trainees are surprised by how pleasant most children are, said Philip Garner, a teacher trainer at Northampton University.

"I think most students go into the classroom for the first time with a healthy sense of foreboding, but what they find is not what they expected. One recently told me: 'I can't see what all the fuss is about'," said Professor Garner, who also runs the website Behaviour4Learning, which gives tips on behaviour management.

"I think a lot of the complaint about behaviour is another aspect of the profession wanting to beat itself up all the time. I've worked in tough areas and been head of a specialist setting for disadvantaged children and not experienced danger at any point.

"If it's that bad, NQTs would never go on to become teachers."

But others say Sir Alan, who was headteacher of Seven Kings High in Redbridge, Essex, for 23 years, has spent too long away from the chalkface.

"It's obvious he ran a tight ship, but he was there for a long time and that must make it hard for him to be objective," said Fintan O'Regan, an academic, charity director, former specialist school headteacher and behaviour consultant.

"His advice could be seen as prescriptive."


- More awareness and understanding from teachers of their legal duties, particularly to exercise discipline beyond the school gates.

- Assessment of the benefits of nurture groups and other "additional provision".

- More use of parenting courses and parenting contracts in order to get them more engaged in the life of the school.

- Withdrawal of child from class if necessary.

- Schools should review their work if teachers have to keep excluding the same child.

- Schools involved in behaviour and attendance partnerships should submit an annual report to their Children's Trust.

- Improved access to child and mental health services.

- Improving behaviour should be the shared responsibility of government, schools and other "local partners".

- The Government should "support and challenge" local authorities with disproportionately high exclusions.


By Michael Shaw

raised eyebrows and cries of disbelief greeted Sir Alan Steer's claim that Britain's pupils are getting better and better behaved.

But it may not be as fantastical as some critics have implied. As Sir Alan notes, Ofsted insists that the number of schools where behaviour is a significant concern is at the lowest level yet and it is inadequate in just 1 per cent of primary and 2 per cent of secondary schools.

Many teachers might be more interested in an anonymous survey of 1,400 teachers published last year by the National Foundation for Educational Research. It found that 94 per cent rated the behaviour in their school as "very good", "good" or "acceptable".

Meanwhile, NUT surveys indicate that teachers became more positive about behaviour between 2001 and 2008.

Youth crime also seems to have fallen over the past 15 years, with the proportion of ten to 17-year-olds who are reprimanded, warned or convicted by police down by 12 per cent since 1992. Cynics might assume that the police must be turning a blind eye to young offenders to improve the figures. But, if anything, police seem to have been targeting under-18 miscreants more severely over the past four years. Indeed, this growing "criminalisation" of young people alarmed the last chair of the Youth Justice Board so much that he resigned.

This is not to say that schools do not face significant daily problems of low-level disruption and that horrendous incidents do not occur.

But those imagining that perfect discipline existed in education's "golden age" would be strongly advised to read State Schools Since the 1950s: The Good News by Adrian Elliott, a former headteacher. He examined HMI reports from the 1950s and found that "unruly behaviour" and "serious disciplinary problems" were noted in many schools - and that was an era when pupils could leave school at 15 and were more than four times more likely than now to play truant.

The memories of staff and pupils from that time are also illuminating. One teacher said his colleague's lesson was "conducted amidst a scene of continuous chaos", and Paul Brinlow, then a pupil, described how he and his friends would amuse themselves by "shooting cigarettes out of each others' mouths with a slug gun".

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today