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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 second part of the talk, on school policies. The first part, on ideology, is here, whilst the third is here.

You can find the slides here.

Let’s recap.

  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.

With all this in mind, I wonder how many of us have come across any of the following thoughts on behaviour in schools?

  • Behaviour is the responsibility of the individual teacher.
  • Behaviour can be improved through more engaging activities.
  • Behaviour management is largely an exercise in bureaucracy.
  • In loco parentis.
  • Teachers are to blame.

There are more, I’m sure: having invisible leaders, or inconsistent approaches, whether by masochistic design or incompetence, for example. Too many teachers report, whether anecdotally or in the press, of labyrinthine, obtuse or negligent policies and enactment.

Behaviour policies are often nightmarish because of our love to overcomplicate things. Simplicity and elegance, however, are surely the twin lights at the tunnel’s end. At Torquay Academy we look to refine policies all the time so that the ship might sail more smoothly.

I’ve tried here to come up with the fewest things which pupils, teachers and parents might want from a school in terms of behaviour. There might be a couple more, of course. My particular two interests in this post are on the parents and leaders, who are, of course, those who enforce and write the rules.

What we want should be elementary: a system which works for all and fosters the most appropriate environment in which pupils can be successful (for successful, I mean emotionally as well as academically, though I believe these follow each other). Recognising, for example, that pupils need to acquire lots of knowledge in order to think more deeply about subjects should lead us down a particular path. Call this path Traditional St. if you will, but the ideology follows the practicality. In order to acquire this knowledge pupils require an environment and culture which allows them to do so with the least fuss possible.

But pupils also need to know why certain behaviours are expected, even if they don’t always agree: we enter the room silently so we can get right on with learning; we don’t run in the corridors because we might hurt either ourselves or someone else; we say ‘thank you’ because it is polite to do so and we want to live in a polite society. As such, it is the duty of all staff to ensure pupils are treated consistently. It’s no good explaining reasons if a few teachers decide to be classroom vigilantes.

Andy Buck, for example, often talks about what he calls ‘sinners’ in a school. These are the people who refuse to toe the line and yet help their pupils get great results. They’re the most tricky to deal with as a leader because it’s hard to argue that they’re doing their pupils a disservice. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these are necessarily too much of a problem in most cases. However, a behavioural sinner who refuses to treat children consistently in line with a school policy is, frankly, trouble. It is absolutely not okay when a three-strikes and out policy is undermined by that one teacher who gives three unofficial warnings first.

What about tech? Is there a place for this to reduce bureaucracy? My school uses Class Charts (I’m sure there are others available) and it really is a clever piece of kit. Linked to SIMS, the software gives teachers a way to create online seating plans (accessible by all staff for cover purposes) which are then used to praise or sanction behaviour, creating all sorts of immediate and importantly, live datasets and updates for year heads, etc. You can find out more here. The point is that this is so much less paperwork for more gain. I’m not usually a tech advocate, but in terms of consistently managing behaviour this is something to look in to.

One criticism of schools with very strict behaviour policies is that these become self-selecting, and that parents will be forced to choose other schools. To this I respond as such: if parents refuse to follow a school’s behaviour policy which has been created to protect pupils as well as giving them the best opportunity to be successful, and if they are then able to place their children in another nearby school which has rules they agree with, then neither the parents nor those other schools are fulfilling their roles. Schools need parents to be on side, but that does not mean schools should kowtow to parents who won’t abide by a home-school agreement, for example.

I do wonder how many schools genuinely require parents to follow these agreements. Most, I’m sure, say they do. But for every little thing? Just as with the school following its responsibility, if a parent has signed a contract they must adhere to it. This is not self-selection but it is holding very high expectations. If every school had such expectations then parents wouldn’t have a choice (and Facebook would be a much less colourful place) but to insist on behaviour. Self-selection is a weedy, excuse of a phrase designed to appeal to a confused section of the left who want to appease an imagined working-class, one that apparently won’t feed or sanction its children. Whatever the truth of the matter, schools and parents must work together. There may well be genuine concerns over a rule (blazers in hot weather, or an inordinate amount of home work, for example), but this is rarer than the annual post-summer Daily Mail articles suggest.

If at the heart of all we do is helping children learn, then trust and high expectations must be the pump.

Want manners? Expect them. Insist on them. If you can, arrange family lunches. If you can’t, expect pupils to at least sit when they eat. Pleases and thank yous must be the norm – make polite discourse an expectation, not an aspiration. Train them. They’re children, they need to learn. They might hate it to start with, but they’ll get better. Most of us learned to eat our greens, didn’t we? Show pupils what do to and insist, insist, insist.

Whatever a school chooses, however, has to be absolutely supported from above. There may well be grey areas, but these are black and white in public. The point is, whatever a school chooses to do should be simple to enforce, easily and consistently explained to pupils and parents, and supported at all times from above.

The next post is on classroom practice.