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.