For whom the bell tolls
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Meditation XVII, 1623
National accountability is needed to scrap the gap between behaviour policy and reality
All new teachers in tough schools have felt that visceral fear in the pit of the stomach when the bell goes for their most disruptive class. But no teacher is an island. Every teacher is a part of the main, and if any teacher, new, supply or otherwise, is confronting a torrent of abuse, or even assault, that diminishes the school. The bell tolls not so much for the new teacher, as for senior leadership.
John Donne, satirist, poet, preacher and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, lay dying in Lent of 1631. He rose from his deathbed to deliver his last sermon, Death’s Duel. He drew on the parable of the two builders, one of whom built his house on rock, the other on sand; one house stood firm against the storms, the other collapsed in ruin as its shifting foundation got washed away: ‘buildings stand by benefit of their foundations that sustain and support them: the foundations suffer them not to sink.’
Just as durable buildings require firm foundations, schools depend on a sound foundation of firm discipline. No one learns anything in a class where disorder is the norm and the teacher has lost control. Inconsistent school discipline is like building a house on sand and expecting it to stand firm.
Disruptive behaviour is a national problem
Let’s establish first that there is a problem with behaviour nationally. Having taught across many challenging schools, education blogger Andrew Old establishes unequivocally that there is a problem. What he says resonates with many teachers, and his blog gets some 500 views a day:
If children are going to learn then it is absolutely vital that they do what they are told in lessons. If schools are going to be safe and orderly then it is essential that they also do what they are told outside of lessons. If teachers are going to be effective then they cannot be constantly faced with the stress of confrontation, defiance and chaos. The minimum standard required for effective teaching is that all teachers (not just SMT or teachers who have been around for years) can expect students to comply with all of their instructions first time. The minimum standard for teaching to be a desirable profession is that teachers have freedom from fear when it comes to giving instructions and enforcing rules. Too many schools simply do not have those standards, and as a result teaching is very often stressful and unpleasant.
The experience of so many new teachers in tough schools, as their articles attest, is of frustration: ‘Pupils know that their school is chaotic and that most of their misbehaviour will go unpunished’; ‘it’s the children’s education that suffers’. But the evidence for this is not just anecdotal.
In proprietary research, Policy First, a teacher-led think-tank within Teach First, surveyed almost 500 pupils and nearly 250 teachers in challenging schools. The survey asked what issues made it more difficult for pupils to work towards the life they want when they’re 25 years old. The results showed a striking consensus. Both teachers and pupils ranked bad behaviour as the most important single barrier to achievement. In the survey, 79% of teachers and 53% of pupils selected bad behaviour in classes as an issue. When asked to rank the five most important issues, three times as many pupils ranked bad behaviour as their most significant issue compared to any other (see charts 1 and 2). For teachers, bad behaviour also ranked as more problematic than the next most significant barriers, motivation and confidence. When surveyed by the Department for Education, 60% of teachers felt bad behaviour was driving teachers away from the profession. Attrition rates of 50% of teachers leaving the career within five years of qualifying, and a turnover as high as 50% annually in the most challenging schools, testify to the problem. Disruptive behaviour is by far the biggest barrier nationally to pupils achieving their aspirations.
Chart 1. Pupil ranking of issues by importance
Chart 2. Teacher ranking of issues by importance
Misbehaviour is caused by inconsistency
So why is this happening, and what is to be done? The biggest cause of misbehavior is inconsistency, within-school variation and poor enforcement. If pupils realise they can get away with behaving badly, without facing consequences, they will continue to push the boundaries. It is a rare teacher who can ensure discipline in the classroom without a consistently implemented policy at school level.
A deeper cause is the damaging preconception that discipline is a dirty word. Andrew Old shatters this misconception in these blog posts here and here; others teachers make this point in articles here and here. No new teacher should ever be blamed for disruptive behaviour in their classroom. Instead, they must feel they can lean heavily on strong behaviour systems in their first term and year, and have help from senior leaders. Consistent consequences, routinely enforced and constantly reinforced by the Senior Leadership Team, are the best way to prevent misbehaviour.
Schools succeed when they enforce consequences consistently
There are some brilliant schools in tough areas who get this right. For example, one London school five or so years ago was faced with an epidemic of disruptive behaviour that was preventing pupils from learning in class. The solution was consistently enforcing a clear behaviour management policy, across all departments and years, with senior leadership highly visible by pupils and accountable to the headteacher for enforcement. New staff induction now routinely trains all new teachers in whole-school consistency on behaviour, and managers encourage them to lean heavily on the system. The watchwords of senior managers are to be ‘consistent, insistent and persistent’. Today, the school has narrowed the gap in GCSE attainment between pupils on FSM and those not on FSM from 28% nationally to 1%. It has established an ethos that eliminates low-level disruption. Pupils know that it is customary to behave in lessons and all senior managers hold themselves and one another accountable for enforcing consistency. Academic results have soared in the new era of consistent enforcement. If it can happen in inner-city London, there’s no reason it can’t happen all over England.
We must enforce rigorous national accountability
How can we ensure this happens nationally? Disruptive behaviour in English schools is a national problem; systemic problems require solutions at a national system level. While some schools have achieved great consistency in behaviour management, other schools still have not. National accountability must now ensure that all senior managers take responsibility for eliminating the disruption that stops pupils achieving their aspirations. Here’s what headteachers and policymakers can do about it:
Headteachers should rigorously ensure all senior managers are accountable for whole-school consistency on disruptive behaviour. For instance, headteachers could hold monthly behaviour forums between new and supply teachers and senior managers to check that support for enforcing behaviour consistently is happening. They could also provide staff induction that rigorously trains new teachers in how to consistently enforce the behaviour management system. Headteachers should ensure that there is a simple system in place for senior managers to support teachers who need to remove students from lessons, and that these teachers, especially early in their careers, are encouraged by all senior leaders to eliminate low-level disruption from their lessons, rather than blamed for not teaching well enough.
Policy makers should devise a clear, simple set of national guidelines for Senior Leadership Teams to achieve consistency on behaviour management, similar to Charlie Taylor’s checklists for teachers and heads. These guidelines could include suggestions that all senior managers are a visible presence at the school gate, corridors and in the lunch hall, enforce a whole-school system of deterrent sanctions outside of lessons for offences such as fighting, and routinely follow up every detention missed by any pupil. These guidelines should be Ofsted’s first port of call on inspections.
As John Donne recognised four centuries ago, senior leaders need to realise the bell tolls not for others, but for them.
See Policy First’s full report, with the behaviour problem on p15, and solution on p35.
Since I wrote this, TES behaviour expert Tom Bennet has posted a brilliantly simple, clear prescription for how we solve the behaviour crisis.