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At this year’s Education Festival at Wellington, I spoke to rather hot and sweaty room about why behaviour is so difficult to talk about, why we overcomplicate matters, and what we can do about it. Thanks to everyone who packed themselves in – not sure H&S would have been keen.

What follows is the first part of the talk, on ideology. The second and third parts, on policy and classrooms, will follow in the coming days are now online.

You can find the slides here.

Behaviour is shit. It’s shit to talk about, because we disagree with each other all the time, even about single words (I’m looking at you, ‘O’ word), and because someone always feels like a failure – “Oh, 9Y3? They’re always lovely with me.” Behaviour is shit because it’s hard to implement policies which are successful. We put in lots of rules, and children don’t follow them, some teachers choose to not follow them, and parents kick off, even when they’ve signed up to follow them. We can’t win. And behaviour is often shit in classrooms, but we don’t like to admit it. In fact, we’re so used to having to deal with behaviour in our classrooms (and where was that on the PGCE?) that we believe there must be some magic bullet. “What can I do to stop Carly Carrot smacking Jaydeen Jam-Jar in the face every lesson?” I mean, really: if we’ve got to that situation, where we have to ask those questions, then we’re in trouble.

None of the above needs to be the case, however. We don’t need to disagree on the ideology if we can agree on what we want. We don’t need to have a quadruple-form, Brazil-style bureaucracy to make sense of overcomplicated behaviour policies. And there are some things we can do to help minimise the chances of poor behaviour appearing in our classrooms.

So, before going any further, let me set out my stall. Hopefully this will make it clear where I’m coming from.

  1. I believe a calm environment is the best in which to learn. I am fully aware that different subjects will require chatter and collaboration, but this can be calm: we really shouldn’t be worried that little Vernon Victim will again be locked in the sports cupboard, or that any food-tech session is really an exercise in ‘dodge-toast’.
  2. We’ve misunderstood the notion of relationships. These should be built on respect, not pandering to the whims of a child. We’re the experts. We’re the adults. We’re not circus animals, or second-rate nannies. The curriculum should be what engages, not the method of delivery. Let’s wow children with our acumen and build relationships around a respect for learning so that, for genuine want of a better phrase, it’s cool to be a nerd.
  3. I don’t have a problem with the word ‘obedient‘. Complaining of some Zamyatin-esque ‘We’ army of child-bots, obeying.commands.in.mechanical.synchronicity. is as lazy as it is wilfully dismissive of a loving teacher or parent’s aim: to help their child be the best they can in a safe environment. I want and need children to do what I say, because I happen to have a clue what I’m doing.

Behaviour is the cornerstone of the culture we create and respond to, and that culture either infects or cures, depending on how we tend to it.

The vast majority, I’m certain, agree that great behaviour is vital for success, however we describe it. There are, of course, a few wacky outliers who think behaving well is tantamount to bending over for The Man, but on the whole we want children to behave well.

But why? Why is behaviour important? Is it so children will grow into people who can excel in society? Is it, on the other hand, so they challenge society? And in that case, what is society, what do we want it to be, and how far are we from that utopia? And whose utopia – Thomas More’s? These views wish to create a better society, but have fundamental differences. Is behaviour intended to create an alt-right, neo-con, neo-lib, Daily Mail, lizard-king, evil-Tory future? Some people, if you believe Facebook comments, actually believe this. This kind of Wonderland-philosophy leads us down rabbit-holes to anger over all sorts of things which, really, are distracting from just getting on with teaching children. It creates allusions and illusions: “I don’t want my children to be obedient! What if there’s a paedophile?”, etcetera. Even the word ‘compliant’ becomes a challenging word.

Now I get – really I do – the reasons for reductio ad adsurduming every point. It is important to question our stances and beliefs. But the kind of stance where strict teachers and schools and ideologies are straightforwardly assumed to be doing children a disservice is intellectual posturing, and more often than not has the faint whiff of reductio ad Hitleruming.

Even if we can agree on what we want, how do we achieve this? Should we let children decide for themselves? Are we involving the community? Should we give children democratic accountability? Or should we tell them how to behave? Does this boil down to a list of rules and consequences, a do-this do-that, ethos? And if so, how many rules? Interestingly, even Summerhill has rules and consequences, though these are set by the children. But are they ready to make that decision? We’re back to the first point again.

Finally, what is great behaviour – what does it actually look like? Who makes the decisions about great behaviour? Again, is this a school decision or is the community involved? Do we want a ‘nanny state’, or lots of mini-nanny states, an economy of nanny states from which the consumer may choose? Is it a quiet class or a silent class? Do we want silence just in the classroom? How much do we expect from ‘these kids’?

Again, these questions might have some validity but they cloud the real issue: children come to school to learn, and so we need to give them the best environment in which to do so. We want them to be happy, but I see no reason why – and have no evidence of – children being unhappy in a strict environment in which they have greater opportunities to be successful.

At my school, Torquay Academy, the behaviour was, before a whole host of changes were put in place by a new principal three-years ago, bad. Bad by, I would hope, anyone’s standards. And so, one of the first things that changed was the school’s approach to behaviour.

The Ofsted report from June 2016, in which Torquay Academy was deemed ‘Good’ in all areas, is very clear:

Senior leaders have placed great emphasis on improving pupils’ behaviour since the previous inspection. The successful strategy has meant that pupils start the day entering the building in a calm manner. They conduct themselves around the buildings politely, showing respect towards others. Pupils arrive at lessons ready to learn. This good behaviour demonstrates pupils’ pride in being part of a caring community.

Indeed, Steve Margetts, principal, on the school’s Ofsted page goes further:

Ofsted has visited us three times since I joined in January 2014.  Their most recent visit was in June 2016.  You can read the report in full by following the link below, however I feel the first two paragraphs sum up the essence of the report and the key messages for me:

  • Pupils, staff and governors take pride in being part of Torquay Academy. Pupils view the school as a ‘real community’.
  • Inspired by the leadership of the principal, senior leaders have brought about rapid improvements to pupils’ behaviour, the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievement.

The inspection before that was in March 2015, it was a one day no-notice inspection that focused upon behaviour. I was very pleased that the inspector concluded that “Leaders and managers have taken effective action to improve behaviour and secure consistently positive attitudes to learning”.

I am a firm believer that strong discipline underpins the effective running of a school enabling all students to learn in a positive atmosphere. Ofsted wrote “Academy leaders, under the direction of the Principal, successfully implement ‘zero tolerance’ in managing students’ behaviour. This includes insisting that students wear the correct uniform, arrive to lessons on time and do not chew gum, wear headphones or use bad language. Leaders have a high profile. They chat to students, inspire everyone to keep the campus free from litter and encourage students quickly into lessons. Students appreciate that the Principal knows them all by name and shows an interest in how they are getting on in their work and behaviour. Staff report how they welcome academy leaders’ immediate support in underpinning the academy behaviour policy”.

What’s really important here, and why I point this out, is that there was not, and is not, an ideological drive behind the new approaches. We don’t sit in a lair in Kent’s Cavern belching out phrases like “zero tolerance”. The school simply decided that behaviour was poor and needed to rapidly improve, and thus implemented simple policies in which to ensure that happened. And it has, even in the short two years I’ve been at school. The school has become very traditionalist, but this is the reaction to previous problems.

Children do not always know how to behave because they are children.

Even the most lovely, polite children make mistakes. That’s part of growing up. Whilst making mistakes can be useful (although I question this here), this is only the case when there is guidance. Allowing children to fail and telling them that failure is important often leads to mediocrity – let’s, right from the off, make the culture one of success and calm and obedience. Of course children will push boundaries, but this does not mean that we allow them to. We’re the adults, and in many places our schools are, to borrow a phrase from a past principal of mine, the last bastions of society. And so we have to tell children how to behave, to show them and model this for them. This means training them in pleases and thank yous and you’re welcomes. No, they might not mean it when we force them to initially, but nor do all children like to eat their greens or brush their teeth – we don’t allow them to get away with this. Eventually the majority, that critical mass, will want to follow the rules because they see how successful they are in their lessons. The rest, that final 10% or so who still kick back, will follow suit because it’ll be uncool to not. But here’s the really important thing: let’s not allow that 10% to dictate what we want and value.

So, here’s the ideology: progressive ideas seek to break down social constructs which humans have built for hundreds of thousands of years. They do so because they reject leaders, hierarchy and heroes whilst simultaneously, and hypocritically, promoting the cause of the individual. But a society made up of individuals working against each other lacks cohesion without a constitution: it’s freedom to rather than freedom from, which for children is confusing and often contradictory. There’s safety in community. There’s also the issue of peer influence. If we want successful, happy children then we need to accept the influence of their environment. We need to accept that approaches which prioritise learning are at the heart of what we do.

The next post is on school policies.

Thanks to Sarah Donarski for the photo.