We’re finally talking about behaviour

Much of my blogging, since I decided to get into teaching some three years ago, has been concerned with the subject of poor behaviour in schools. I’ve been banging on about it so long that I must at times have sounded like a scratched record. And while there have been some sympathetic ears, my overwhelming feeling has been that the behaviour issue is often downplayed and not taken particularly seriously. I hear a lot of outrage from some quarters about cuts or about tests, but when it comes to the massive issue of behaviour: silence. So I’m rather pleased that we’re finally talking about it.

It all started with an article in Schools Week written by Laura McInerney entitled: “What if it’s behaviour that makes new teachers leave?” This was followed by a flurry of responses on Twitter, with anecdotal evidence that indeed behaviour is one, if not the leading factor for teachers leaving the profession. That’s not to say there hasn’t been the usual pushback on this issue. This prominent edu-tweeter posted the following:

  And a former school inspector had this to say:

Since I am one of those people whose teaching career was blighted by poor behaviour, I would beg to differ with the above points of view. I am not alone. Here’s what one teacher had to say about her NQT year:

As far as I’m concerned, behaviour is the number one issue at the heart of many of our problems in education. Sort out behaviour and in one fell swoop, without making any other changes in your school, attainment will rocket up. Sort out behaviour and you’ll finally plug the haemorrhage of teachers from the profession. Staff absences will also miraculously reduce. It is no accident that the majority of schools that needed my services when I did supply work were schools with behavioural issues. Sort out behaviour and your teachers will be able to actually teach rather than fire fight. It is a complete no brainer, and yet so many school leaders still don’t accept that it is their primary responsibility to ensure that their schools are safe, calm spaces to work in.

Sorting out behaviour is not exactly rocket science. Several schools in this country do it very well. At the very least, school leaders could go visit them and learn a thing or two. But really, what are we talking about here? Having high expectations of your students (beware the soft bigotry of low expectations – just because children come from poor and socially disadvantaged backgrounds doesn’t mean they can’t behave). Devising clear, simple rules, communicating them to students and staff, and then rigorously enforcing them for a consistent approach. It is eminently do-able.

Come on school leaders of the land, sort out your systems. Don’t blame individual teachers and make them feel like failures because they couldn’t manage the behaviour in their classes. The absolute cheek of it! Blaming teachers is the biggest cop out in town. It is not a badge of honour to be able to control a class of rebellious teenagers. Some people are naturally good at it, others struggle. That alone does not make a good teacher. There are so many talented people out there who would make great teachers if only they were supported with behaviour. Tom Starkey makes this point eloquently in his oh so excellent blog this week:

Sort out your systems first, then look at individuals. Without functioning systems, you’ve no idea what people can do. Great teaching can only be enabled if systems support great teaching.

And Ofsted, please, please, make school leaders accountable for behaviour. I still haven’t forgotten how one of my previous schools – with shockingly terrible behaviour – could proudly emblazon its front gate with a quote from an Ofsted report saying “Behaviour is good”. Scratch a little more under the surface and find out what behaviour really is like before making such stupendously incorrect statements in your reports. Just, for goodness’ sake, sort it out.

Nuance: another attempt to silence ‘trads’

Every so often – actually rather frequently – a controversy or heated debate erupts within edu-twitter which, if you dig down to the root of it, usually represents another round in the ‘trad’ versus ‘prog’ battle.

I get that some people are heartily bored with this particular debate and that others maintain the dichotomy doesn’t actually exist. Moreoever, I’m pretty sure a good many teachers, too busy to do the Twitter thing, are blissfully unaware that this debate is occuring.

“What’s a trad or a prog?”

“No idea.”

I too, before deciding to get into teaching, could not have told you what these labels meant. I would also like to point out that I’m not particularly keen on labels.  I always get a bit uppity about having to answer questions about my ethnicity when applying for jobs or filling out various other forms. Eek. Don’t label me! I’m me, a unique entity, not “Asian other” or “Middle Eastern”, though technically those terms might apply. So I can understand some people’s resistance to the idea that teachers might be ‘trads’ or ‘progs’.

Some may be uncomfortable with the combative aspect of this debate, which can often get a little heated. They might express sentiments such as “Let’s play nice and stop warring with each other” or “We’re all on the same side and want the best for our students”. I suspect a minority of people also like to virtue signal their neutrality.

And yet it’s obvious to me that there are fundamental differences in outlook and approach that manifest themselves in various ways. A look at recent debates, for example the one on school exclusions, will generally see people range into two camps. In this instance, people on the more progressive spectrum were calling for a reduction in the numbers of exclusions, and people on the more trad spectrum arguing for their necessity.

Secondly, it’s clear to me that the status quo, or you can call it the establishment, is profoundly progressive in its outlook. A significant proportion of educationalists – university lecturers, ITT tutors, educational consultants and senior leaders in schools – have a progressive ethos, even though they might not like to describe themselves as such. Consequently, many trainee teachers as well as the more experienced ones, have been exposed to progressive ideology throughout their careers and led to believe that it is the accepted truth. It was the need to bust such myths that prompted Daisy Christodoulou to write her seminal book “Seven Myths About Education’.

In the last few years, a proportion of teachers have, through Christodoulou’s book (and others), social media, grassroots conferences such as ResearchEd and the edu-blogosphere, begun to question the orthodoxies they had been inculcated with as trainees. These nascent ‘trads’ are still a minority in education but a growing one. It’s amazing how quickly ideas can spread, and how movements can snowball. It would not be too far from the truth to describe the trad movement as an insurgency in UK education.

Now of course, some established people are unhappy about this. The insurgency must at all costs be suppressed. No academics or consultants, who for years have been peddling certain practices to schools and teachers, want to hear the rising voices saying such practices are nonsense, or ineffective. As a result many teachers in the ‘trad’ camp have faced concerted campaigns to silence and discredit them. One approach has been to claim that there is ‘no best way’ to teach and that most teachers use a combination of groupwork and direct instruction anyway. A more recent attempt to discredit trads has been to claim that education debates should be nuanced. Thus I saw in my timeline today a blog being discredited for lack of nuance.

At its worst, this suppression can take a nasty and downright sinister turn. Schools and headteachers, being publicly shamed and harrassed for their supposedly ‘no-excuses’ approach to behaviour management. Individual teachers being reported to their schools for things they might have said in blogs or on social media. I myself have experienced such malicious actions, which practically derailed my career in education (but I’m still here). Some of what I experienced is described in this blog by Andrew Old.

So please, edu-twitter, don’t tell me the debate between trads and progs doesn’t exist. Don’t tell me the debate doesn’t matter. Why else would it get so heated and so underhand if it didn’t matter? We are not debating here whether porridge or toast is best for breakfast. This debate, this battle, is the most important one to be had because it directly impacts the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children in UK schools. Do we continue to let them down, with lax behaviour, knowledge-poor curricula and ineffective pedagogy, or do we confront the misguided ideas that have driven down standards for far too long? I know which choice I’m making, and detractors can shove their nuance up their backside.


First week in the bag

First week over in my new school, and I have survived relatively unscathed. I took the decision earlier this year not to get back into teacher training, at least not yet. My quest was to find a good school – not in Ofsted terms – and do some more TA work for a while until I figured what to do next.

After the stress of last year, it felt like a good idea to take my foot off the accelerator and just to enjoy being in school again and working with children. Also, it was important for me to get some experience working in a well-run school – I’ve been in too many dysfunctional schools and this has meant that I have unfortunately not been exposed to best practice. I could write tomes about all the wrong things that are being done in schools, but not so much about the good things. So, before disillusionment drove me away from a career in education once and for all, it was imperative that I finally got to have a positive experience. I did a stint of supply work, as well as put my nose to the ground to sniff out a good one. It’s early days yet, but I think I’ve found just the school to lick my wounds in and rise back from the ashes.

As part of this process, I also decided to de-activate my Twitter account. There was too much noise on my edu-twitter feed. At first it had excited me but latterly it had become fatiguing. I have been tempted back on once or twice, but only for a short time before realising just how right my decision to ‘switch off’ has been. That’s not to say I haven’t conversed with some interesting people, and I do try to check various blogs now and again. But that’s as far as it goes. I’m eschewing edu-conference season too. At the moment, it feels right to just do my own thing and reflect on my practice without outside interference.

Already in just one week, this feels different to all the schools I’ve worked in before. For one thing, all the staff I’ve met have been friendly and supportive. People have been kind to me, and helped to put me at ease. This does not feel like an establishment where staff stab each other in the back, and although everyone is working hard, there isn’t that horrible tense atmosphere which is usually the product of over-the-top accountability cultures. I left my last school because I felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells, with everyone fearful of the senior leadership team. I would get rapped on the knuckles (metaphorically speaking) for the slightest infraction, but never got praise for any of my hard work. My new school, on the other hand, seems to have that ethos of “high challenge, low threat” advocated by Mary Myatt.

It’s still early days and I’m sure I will have much more to reflect on in the weeks and months ahead. All week I have been trying to put my finger on what makes this school different. There isn’t anything overtly noticeable about it. On the surface, it looks like most any other primary school in the metropolis. So far, I’ve come up with the following:

  •  The head teacher has a very clear vision for her school. She is not afraid to stand her ground and push back, whether it’s with parents, governors or the local authority if it’s in the best interests of her school.
  • High calibre staff are recruited – there is no dead wood here. Everyone is on message and consistency is key.
  • Staff are valued and nurtured. Already, I have been signed up to attend two training courses. Professional development is taken seriously.
  • There is attention to detail so that the whole school runs like a well oiled machine. My induction was the most meticulous I have ever experienced.
  • Children in the school are well behaved. Right from day one, behaviour expectations are made clear and re-inforced. Children walk silently down corridors because the head insists on it.
  • So much thought has been put into how the limited space in the school is used. Despite these limits, the school doesn’t feel cramped at all, but airy, clean and tidy.

Overwhelmingly though, the biggest factor in why this is a good school is the calibre of the head teacher. I think this is the case in most other successful schools – take Michaela for example. What a difference it makes when there is someone who really knows what they are doing and have the strength of personality to see it through. It’s the equivalent of leadership X-factor. Some people have it, others don’t.