Behaviour At The Crossroads

By Phil Naylor

 

Decision time readers! 2024 is a big year. It is the year of an election and with it the inevitable change to educational ideologies, opinions and experts.

Speaking to Mark McCourt in an early Naylor’s Natter podcast episode, we discussed the 20-year educational cycle where ideas develop, flourish, mutate, wither and die. At that time, we were reminiscing on such educational fads as Brain Gym, Learning Styles, Flight paths, group work and Kagan Structures.

Such fads at one time were lauded as progressive new practice designed to sweep away the gradgrindian, didactic chalk-and-talk dinosaurs leading policy at the time. They are now routinely ridiculed to the extent where they are the butt of April Fools jokes among the traditional, sorry ‘evidence based’ educators.

Following closely the death throes of EduTwitter over the last few weeks, you will have no doubt have come across the end of cycle arguments around behaviour.

  • Exclusions and suspensions increasing
  • More teachers subject to violence in the classroom
  • Attendance decreasing

 

How did we get here?

The Rashomon effect is a phenomenon where an event is given contradictory interpretation or descriptions by those involved, thereby providing different perspectives and points of view of the same incident.  A version of this phenomenon is played out on social media with rival camps becoming warring factions when their perspective is challenged. In this article we can refer to these groups as left or right, not in a political view but directions at a crossroads. Their positions are deliberately caricatured for contrast.

 

Who is responsible for us being here?

Behaviour is declining

Since lockdown there has been a rise in school exclusions and suspensions. Teacher Tapp findings in March 2024 1show a clear increase in concerns about learning in both primary and secondary schools. A BBC commissioned report also highlighted that 1-in-5 teachers have been hit by a pupil.

The left will say this is evidence of a ‘Hard Times’ themed curriculum. Students crammed with facts are uninspired, so lessons are not worth behaving for. Any suspension is simply the result of an unmet need that potentially results from trauma or undiagnosed SEND. Schools need to work harder on inclusion, restorative practice and bespoke curriculum pathways to meet the needs of these students to stop the ‘exclusion to prison pipeline’. Their proponents leap on news stories and school shaming articles as evidence for their progressive ‘be kind’ agenda.

The right will say these figures are necessary to ensure that teachers can teach and pupils can learn. They will opine that any civilised society has rules and expectations which must be communicated, taught and adhered to. Once they are transgressed there must be sanctions. Pupils misbehave and push back as this is a natural response to authority but teaching students to behave enhances their characters, increases their employability and benefits society as a whole. They support interventions where needed but abhor excuses and appeasement. They push back on school shaming as evidence that schools actually have rules and their proponents, despite not feeling it necessary to state how kind they are on social media, are often the nicest politest people you could wish to meet.

 

Attendance is decreasing

36% of teachers surveyed by Teacher Tapp acknowledged that lateness and absence had an effect on teaching, well up on the 17% recorded pre-pandemic 2.

Is this again as appearing to be the view of the left a reaction to didactic pedagogies boring children into absenteeism? Is the knowledge-rich curriculum tuning out swathes of students crying out for a more hands-on, technical and technological diet? Is the hopelessness of so much missed schooling resulting in a rejection of the status quo and alternative lifestyles. Or could it be the lack of ‘Dead Poets Society’ charismatic teaching which inspires, enthuses and has children running to school for fear they miss something. Are schools not accommodating the complex needs of students making it more difficult for them to attend?  This view seems to emanate primarily from experts who either have never been a teacher or tried it once but found commenting on it more lucrative and less exacting.

 

Or is absence to be challenged, routines to be sought and a culture of showing up to be inculcated in generation Z and beyond as in the view of the right. Stoicism, resilience and character are to be developed, shaped and sculpted by regular attendance. Your place in society and indeed society itself relies on the collective will to get involved and shape our future. It may not, indeed cannot be always enjoyable but attendance is vital. Students, particularly disadvantaged ones take refuge in the reliability of experiences they have at school. having high expectations of conduct and attendance and high expectations that they are capable of delivering. The experts on this side seem to lead schools, bucking trends and helping others.

 

How do we get out of here? Meet in the middle – a third way?

Having interviewed over 20 schools’ leaders for my next book Some Schools are harder than others, I can confidently stay that there is a third way. The interviewees are not polarised, politicised ideologues but pragmatic teachers.  They were carefully chosen to reflect areas of high disadvantage, high academic performance and attendance alongside a good or better OFSTED rating.  Here are some of their middle ground suggestions.

 

Culture, then relationships

Warm, welcoming and friendly is the motto of former headteacher Barry Smith. His repetitive mantras exude positivity and set the tone for school. The culture is set, and relationships are developed between all stakeholders on that premise.

“Morning Sir/Miss, how are you today? Did you ask me how I am? Always nice to be asked.”

“I’m very polite to you, you’re very polite to me.”

“I don’t ignore you, you don’t ignore me.”

Positive cultures anchor expectations, breed consistency and make the experience of school more predictable. Exclusions and suspensions may and are still used when necessary but once positive cultures are embedded its simply in Barry’s words “who we are and what we do”. Relationships are vital but set within a wider culture and available to all stakeholders.

 

Routines (taught)

Societies are built on norms, routines and rules. Road traffic accidents are fortunately low 6, this is caused in part by a willingness of drivers to learn and be taught the rules of the road and subsequently follow the rules of the road. Precious few drivers see traffic lights or roundabouts as authoritarian or oppressive but as necessary tools to help everyone navigate journeys safely. Queuing, waiting our turn are taught habits to ensure society can operate successfully. The same is true of education. Routines, norms and consequences allow all students to flourish.

Imagine if some drivers were given 5-minutes-early passes because they did not like busy roads so they could ignore traffic lights? |Or some drivers unable to wear seatbelts due to not liking the material they are made from? Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it, but this is happening in schools. Larger and larger numbers of students are being allowed to opt out of rules and norms, abetted by parents and frightened school leaders. If this happened on roads, there would be an increase in accidents. Where this is endemic in schools, chaos reigns and learning suffer.

A clear example from Some schools are harder than others is the use of Teacher Time, Task Time and Team Time created by Chris Kinsey. Put in its simplest terms, Teacher Time is a silent time when students track and listen to the teacher, Task Time is a silent time when students are working on a task individually and Team Time is an opportunity to discuss work with a partner. These routines when taught and embedded make a real difference to student engagement and attention. Students are happier with boundaries.

 

Consistency

The holy grail every teacher, leader and expert claims they want. Very easy to say, extremely difficult to achieve. In my 2022 book Naylor’s Natter I reflected on my 160 interviews with educationalists. Even the potential heads of the opposing factions in the behaviour debate agreed on the need for consistency.

‘Your students need high expectations, tight routines and essential rules drip fed over time’ Paul Dix 3

‘The culture of your classroom isn’t a thing separate from you. It’s made up of you, your actions, your expectations and what you permit or prohibit’ Tom Bennett 4

This means an undeviating line on uniform, behaviour and attendance, fostering a culture of how we do things round here, removing excuses, barriers and well-meaning interventionism.

The best thing we as educators can do for disadvantaged students is to provide and maintain the highest possible standards for their conduct. In doing so, teachers create a crucial sense of order within the school environment that many students don’t experience at home.

Students can take refuge in the reliability of experiences and expectations that school provides and the expectation that they are capable of delivering.5

 

Support from a hands-on trust

It is so easy to complain in 2024. Everyone has an opinion on education as they once went to school. Now that Ofsted are one email away and a parents Facebook page a click away, it is easy to air views to sympathetic audiences. Some trusts and Local authorities cosseted in home working or palatial offices are ever sensitive to anything that may damage the ‘brand’. They find appeasement and submission the easiest approaches to complaints as they rarely have to deal with the fall out. This is left to the headteacher who’s often sensible approach and firm line is now undermined, leading to a very real feeling in some schools that some parents run the school.

Ironically and unsurprisingly parental complaints increase in number and frequency following submission and the negative comments and press only escalate and the complaining parents rarely choose another school.

Leaders in successful ‘harder’ schools are supported by trusts by hands on teams, living and breathing the schools. Complaints are dealt with; parents and staff are supported but firm lines are stuck to. Headteachers feel empowered to run ‘their’ school. Again, unsurprisingly, complaints reduce and overall satisfaction increases. Parents and pupils seem to prefer a tight ship.

Sometimes, cycles have to be broken and a definitive directional decision needs to be made. The era of expertise emanating primarily from working from home social media pundits, educational consultants, SLEs and six-figure trust experts needs to end.

I have faith in our leaders, teachers and students in ‘harder’ schools. Those of us noble enough to step across the classroom threshold can pull together.

The middle ground doesn’t sell, get likes, clicks or appreciation but it is pragmatic, sensible and in the polarised craziness of 2024 it may just work.

 

References

  1. https://teachertapp.co.uk/articles/how-to-improve-behaviour-wellbeing-and-how-youre-using-ai-in-schools/
  2. https://teachertapp.co.uk/articles/weekend-working-absence-and-lateness-and-strict-schools/
  3. https://amzn.eu/d/8poz60o
  4. https://amzn.eu/d/1vbsiMH
  5. https://amzn.eu/d/3eDVeYA
  6. https://www.brake.org.uk/get-involved/take-action/mybrake/knowledge-centre/uk-road-safety

 

Author

Phil Naylor is Deputy Head at an academy in Blackpool and is the creator and presenter of the Naylor's Natter podcast, where he interviews teachers and school leaders to discuss pedagogy, curriculum and school leadership.

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