Psychologists are warning that the education secretary's focus on a "reward-punishment" approach to improving behaviour is a "house built on sand".
Dozens of experts in psychology and education have signed a letter criticising Gavin Williamson's speech to the FED National Education Summit on Monday, in which he argued that "traditional teacher-led lessons" were "powerful tools" for building a learning environment where "everyone flourishes".
However, Mr Williamson's approach has been backed by some teachers and leaders who believe "all the evidence suggests" that it "transforms lives".
In his speech, Mr Williamson said that "traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class are powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment where everyone flourishes".
He also said that "students must learn that the expectation is they will follow reasonable adult instructions the first time – without dispute".
But the psychologists warned in their open letter, addressed to Mr Williamson, that "these expectations do not show an understanding of the substantial percentage of children who are struggling with their daily life due to experiences of trauma".
We’re asking @gavinwilliamson to change his emphasis on ‘catch up’. Please RT and share with your local MP #catchup #education #schools #covid19 #trauma #send #twitterEPs @willpsyc @betsydet @dramberelliott pic.twitter.com/aCDcam5tgG— Dr Will Shield (@WillPsyc) March 4, 2021
And Neil Mercer, an academic at the University of Cambridge, said separately that it was a "big lie" to claim that such a "traditional" approach was "evidence-based".
"Gavin Williamson says that 'traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class' is 'evidence-based' and 'everyone flourishes'," he wrote on Twitter.
"Another big lie to put on the side of a bus? All the evidence supports dialogic teaching."
Gavin Williamson says that “traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class” is “evidence-based” and “everyone flourishes”. Another big lie to put on the side of a bus? All the evidence supports dialogic teaching.— Neil Mercer (@profneilmercer) March 2, 2021
However, some teachers came out in support of Mr Williamson's approach.
In response to Professor Mercer's tweet, academy trust leader Will Smith said: "You seem to be suggesting that because Gavin Williamson said it, it must be a lie. Traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert is exactly what we promote. Why? Because all the evidence suggests that is what transforms lives. Come join us and see."
You seem to be suggesting that because Gavin Williamson said it, it must be a lie. Traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert’ is exactly what we promote. Why? Because all the evidence suggests that is what transforms lives. Come join us and see. https://t.co/EeQZRPpyFP— Will Smith (@MrWill_Smith) March 2, 2021
And science teacher Adam Boxer replied: "Hi professor, once this whole mess is over you are welcome to come visit my school and watch me teaching a traditional teacher-led lesson with children seated facing me. Hopefully you will see plenty of dialogue and everyone flourishing."
Hi professor, once this whole mess is over you are welcome to come visit my school and watch me teaching a traditional teacher led lesson with children seated facing me. Hopefully you will see plenty of dialogue and everyone flourishing.— Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) March 2, 2021
The education secretary also said in Monday's speech that "now, more than ever, we need schools to create an environment which makes it easy to behave and hard not to".
"If they get it wrong, teachers must constantly teach and challenge them to do better," he said.
"Children learn from each other: the culture must be universal, and everyone should be taught to participate. The school needs to show students if they do their best to behave well, then anything is possible for them, but if they choose not to do so, then they need to be held to account where appropriate for their actions."
But the psychologists warned that a school culture "built on discipline and punishment" could lead to "chaos".
"It is our shared opinion that your focus upon a reward-punishment approach to raising behaviour standards, without duly prioritising the emotional stability upon which they depend, is a house built on sand," they wrote.
The open letter called for teacher wellbeing to be treated as a priority going forward.
"It is essential to prioritise the wellbeing of teachers and educational staff who have worked (and continue to work) relentlessly to ensure that all children have had opportunities to learn over the past 12 months," it said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We recognise that extended school closures for most pupils have had a significant impact on children's education, which is why we have already announced a £700 million recovery package, including an expansion of the National Tutoring Programme and funding for summer schools.
"The department has also appointed Sir Kevan Collins to the role of education recovery commissioner, in recognition that a long-term plan is required to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their lost education.
"We are providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets for those children who need them most, with over 1.2 million of these already delivered, alongside access to free mobile data for disadvantaged families to ensure all children could continue learning when not in the classroom."