We need to take behaviour seriously at a national level

The education system fails to match behaviour expertise with the schools in which it is needed most

Tom Bennett

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It’s time to start taking behaviour seriously at a national level. A YouGov poll commissioned by Ofsted in 2014 reported that low-level disruption is "prevalent" and that pupils were potentially losing up to an hour of learning each day because of it. But when I trained to be a teacher, we were given a short lecture on the matter, after which, presumably, we would learn this essential craft by – possibly – osmosis.

For school leaders, it’s an even more uncertain path, and many reach senior roles with little support in understanding what strategies are most helpful in promoting great student behaviour. In the last few years, things have started to improve, eg the Early Career Framework, which holds much promise. But the system still struggles in places to match expertise with need.

And yet, the skills and talents are out there. Many schools work miracles with even the most challenging students, in the most difficult circumstances. When I wrote Creating a Culture, a report on the most effective school behaviour systems in 2017, we found a rich seam of schools who helped children to defy the gravity of their circumstances.

But it’s not easy, and it takes more than just ambition and effort. School leaders need to be able to choose from a range of field-tested strategies for running whole-school systems where everyone – staff and students – can flourish, in a flourishing community. Knowing what to do is as important as knowing that you want to do it.

Meeting the challenge of challenging schools

But knowing what to do isn’t easy. Of course, it isn’t. Managing the behaviour of other people isn’t intuitively obvious. No one is born knowing how to do it. But if the pathway to learning such vital, complex skills is hard to discern or invisible, how can we expect our leaders to know what to do? Where can they even access training for it? This would be a scandal if we were to transfer this deficit into another field, such as medicine or flying an aircraft. Leaders in charge of the most challenging schools need the most training and support of all, and here is where we find the skills gap at its most profound.

There are many ways this could be tackled: teacher induction training, better career professional development for leaders, etc, and these are slower but sustainable ways to seek systematic improvement. But schools also need help now. Children get one shot at a school career, and particularly for children from disadvantaged circumstances, nothing is more pressing.

We need schools that have managed to climb high with good behaviour to show the way to schools who could use support to do the same. We need schools that have fantastic cultures of civility, dignity, safety and calm, but which are also inclusive, comprehensive and serving a real demographic of children, however challenging that is.

We need schools that understand that the best way to build these cultures is through a focus on clearly understood positive norms and routines, authentically high expectations and supportive but also consistent consequences. Where the most disadvantaged students receive the best support possible, and every child matters.

Behaviour Hubs project

This is why I have agreed to lead the government's Behaviour Hubs project, which plans to do exactly that. Lead schools, with success in these areas will be matched with partner schools, which they will support. Partner schools will be offered a variety of levels of support, from targeted one-to-one leadership coaching, to whole staff training.

Turning schools around is not achieved by simple tips or one-off efforts, but by sustained, whole-culture approaches that take time, planning and patience. We expect lead schools to listen to partner schools and work out with them what they need to do, rather than offer blanket, context-free solutions. We’re as interested in what won’t work as what will, and when, and where. And we’re looking for partner schools that are open to new ideas, up for a challenge, and willing to learn from some of the best people we have in our system.

Demographics matter in school leadership. We know that some schools serve communities where challenge is more entrenched, or students come from circumstances where contextual factors make poor behaviour more likely.

Students do not invent themselves; they are the products of their circumstances. The student who is fortunate enough to have been patiently taught how to focus, take turns and be kind, literate and numerate, will often start school with huge advantages over the child who has not, or who has been exposed to toxic circumstances.

So schools need to know how to teach behaviour and habits that helps students to flourish, as learners and human beings. We can shrug and say, "But they should behave," and they should, but they often do not, so what then? And if we do not teach teachers how to teach behaviour as well as respond to misbehaviour – and often they are taught neither – then how can we expect things to change?

Good mainstream practice is often good alternative provision practice, and schools in both sectors have an enormous amount to learn from one another, as do primary and secondary. These are all children, despite their circumstances, and what binds, motivates and inspires us is greater than our differences. They all deserve the best chance in life, and schools, teachers and leaders, deserve the support to help them achieve that. It’s an honour to be leading this. It’s not the answer to all of our problems, but it might be the beginning.  

Tom Bennett is the Department for Education’s lead behaviour adviser, supporting policy on school behaviour, and the founder of researchED.

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