Education secretary Gavin Williamson has been accused of making "flimsy", "strange" and "simplistic" assumptions after claiming that behaviour and discipline have “really improved” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In an interview in a national newspaper today, Mr Williamson said that Covid safety measures, such as separating year groups and making pupils face the front when sitting in class, had reduced bullying and exclusions.
However, his comments do not tally with those of thousands of teachers across the country who responded to a Tes survey in which 70 per cent reported a behaviour slump under Covid.
And teachers’ and headteachers’ leaders today indicated that his comments needed to be treated with caution.
Gavin Williamson claims behaviour has improved during Covid
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We would be wary about jumping to generalised conclusions about how behaviour and discipline have been affected by the circumstances of the past year in schools.
“There is certainly some anecdotal evidence that keeping year groups separate in order to maintain bubbles has reduced the potential for behaviour incidents because it means that there are fewer pupils mixing.
“However, there has also been the challenge of reintegrating children back into school life after they have been out of school for some time and getting them back into routines – as well as enforcing a whole raft of new rules over Covid safety measures.
“Far more urgent than making sweeping statements based on flimsy assumptions about seating plans is to publish arrangements for this year’s qualifications, and to fund a proper learning recovery plan”.
Last month's Tes survey was responded to by more than 7,000 teachers. One state primary teacher said: “Children that never concerned me are now hurting other children and screaming in distress," while a state secondary teacher said: “Year 11 have moved from a calm, well-behaved class to totally unmanageable and rowdy.”
Meanwhile, the education secretary was also criticised for his speech to FED National Education Summit earlier this month, in which he said "traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front” were “powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment".
Today in the i newspaper, he said making pupils face the front, as well as separating year groups, had reduced bullying and exclusions. He said: “Behaviour and discipline has really improved over the last year.”
But Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, told Tes that the majority of classrooms in this country didn’t have room for desks to be separated and facing the front, and accused Mr Williamson of being “simplistic”.
She said: “The classrooms are too small and there are too many pupils in them, so teachers who are teaching in groups – either because that’s how they choose to teach or because that's the only configuration of desks which are available in their classroom – they just, you know, raise their eyebrows.
“They've gone beyond getting irritated or annoyed about this because, frankly, they expect no better. And so we have Gavin Williamson yet again sounding facile and simplistic and only able to say simple things because he doesn’t understand the complexities.”
Dr Bousted said the comment that behaviour had improved during the pandemic was “a strange thing to say” because most pupils had been educated at home for considerable periods.
She said different year groups not mixing could have reduced bullying, but added: “Bullying doesn’t just happen between year groups, it happens within year groups.”
Mr Williamson told the ASCL conference this week: "I applaud the steps schools and colleges are taking at the moment to create a disciplined and calm environment in which a strong behaviour culture is embedded in every school and where students are taught how to behave well and are clear about the consistent expectations placed on them."