Tom Bennett: 'We need to help children develop habits of civility and learning that last them a lifetime'

Tom Bennett

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This has been one of the oddest weeks of my life. Since the announcement that I would be chairing a working group looking at behaviour management, things have gone a bit Twin Peaks. There may remain an underground, pirate radio show I haven’t troubled yet, but I doubt it. On my travels across various media this week, I learned the following:

  1. I was a nightclub bouncer (not true, but close: a manager)
  2. I’m a Tsar (demonstrably unconstitutional)
  3. I’m going to sort out bad behaviour (not even Santa can move that fast)
  4. I’m not a teacher (really? My classes will be curious to know about this)
  5. Vanessa Feltz has a ‘no-nonsense’ attitude to discipline (doubleplustrue)

The press called me Behaviour Tsar. I wouldn't mind, but it blurs what my brief actually is: to lead a group aimed at creating recommendations for the way we train teachers to manage and lead behaviour. Tsar implies power, implies authority: I have neither. All I have is a decade running rooms as best I can, and the collective wisdom I've shamelessly nicked from everyone I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. The truth is that there are men and women just as good as me – better, even – in every school in the country, and that’s the point: we can do this. Teachers don’t need substantive new powers; we need a focus on what's needed to obtain what our students need.

Behaviour management is one of the biggest challenges a teacher can face, because to give it another name, it’s the art of running a room. Twenty-five children will not, unaided, point themselves at Magna Carta, or Ulysses, or Franklin’s kite, without help. Believing that rooms must be run isn’t predicated on the assumption that children are mischievous; it’s predicated on the fact that human beings like to do as they please. And what children please may not always be to their advantage, which is why children’s birthday parties end up at TGI Fridays and not Holland & Barratt. 

I’ve worked with new teachers for years on this. I’ve run behaviour management forums for most of my career, and I’ve heard thousands of problems from year after year of teachers. I’ve visited well over 100 schools in my career, and the challenges are often the same: many staff don’t feel trained to handle behaviour, schools often lack clear and effective systems to manage behaviour and many senior staff are unsure how to create a system that works for all parties. This is too important to get wrong.

One thing is immediately obvious to anyone teaching a class: when they’re mucking around, they're not learning. And even the tiny percentage of outliers who can focus in chaos are swamped by the ones who can’t. Every teacher knows that 80 per cent of their time will go to 10 per cent of the neediest pupils. This is a necessary truth, but it’s hard on the other 90 per cent of pupils, who are equally deserving of attention and care. 

Everyone wants a magic bullet intervention that costs little and raises attainment. Well, here it is: make sure every teacher is trained to run a room; make sure every leader and manager is trained to design systems that support behaviours that focus on the common good. Tweak those coordinates early enough in the career of every educator, and watch the lessons land. 

I’m building a team of men and women who possess the critical feature of experience; experience in schools and institutions where children need adults to guide them. I’m assembling these Avengers from every sector: primary and secondary; early years; ITT institutions; training schools; special ed; PRUs. We’ll be looking to distill the collective wisdom and experience (and research) from people and places where ambition and care have led to the relationships and habits that drive the flourishing of children. Where possible, we’ll attempt to discern near-universal truths, best-fits and versatile strategies; simultaneously, we’ll pay attention to context – when do some strategies work in some places, with some children? Where? Why? What matters?

Teaching saved me. There is nothing, nothing like the transformative power of a profession that aims to the common good rather than one’s own gain. There is nothing like standing in a classroom and being forced to become architect of the next hour or seven. It is the fountain of youth; a daily gauntlet; a cold shower and a lottery ticket. Sometimes it’s a seven-gun salute and sometimes it’s a slow clap. But it is always important because children will always be important. And, like a restaurant, your first customer is as important as your last one. 

I’m proud to be a teacher, and I’m proud that I still am. Education is often a silent field of partitioners surrounded by and permeated with armchair generals whose only experience of education is Waterloo Road and Grange Hill. It’s good to be part of an advisory body that bucks that trend. And it’s good to be asked. When was the last time teachers were asked anything? Behaviour isn’t a political issue. Every party – every adult and child – should be concerned that we help children develop habits of civility and learning that last them a lifetime. 

So I make no apologies for – for once – celebrating and recognising the vitality of the teacher experience in this project. And I welcome the input of the communities of educators, parents, children in our investigation and report. Politicians, poet laureates, columnists and internet warriors are entitled to their views. But to know what goes on in a classroom, you need to ask someone who lives there, or has studied it. And that’s exactly what I intend to do.

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Tom Bennett

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