Tom Bennett

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The elephant in the classroom is behaviour- until we fix that, nothing else matters

‘There is NO behaviour crisis in education.’

The focus of the Fourth Estate drifts from shore to shore; recently it seems to have dropped anchor on behaviour in schools, for a number of reasons; the Coalition has been talking up the problem since before it took office, and what it proposes to do about it; Jamie’s Dream School has presented the casual, non specialist viewer with a smorgasbord of ghastly behaviour from a range of drop outs who display the full spectrum of poor ‘behaviour for learning’ (as it is hellishly described in educational robot-policy-wonk-speak) from the deserving poor to the undeserving spoilt brat; and today, this survey, from the NASUWT, Britain’s second biggest teachers’ trade union.


It’s media Heaven, as I get to pick, like a Crow, on the carrion smoothie of opinion, fact, and fudge that passes for reason in matters pedagogic. I am constantly amazed by the number of people who would be embarrassed to pontificate on, say, technical matters relating to the re-entry angle of the Apollo series space missions, but feel that, when it comes to the best way to run schools, then they can pull on the sandals and comedy beard and make like Moses. Seriously, it’s embarrassing. I wouldn’t dream of telling them how to fry polenta or interview an au pair.

‘Yess…give them more SEAL….’

If I had a penny for every time someone who has never taught in a school, nor been in any way responsible for the running or day-to-day management of classrooms, has written a passionate piece of educational advocacy for the newspapers, for education committees, for LEA ‘best practise’ documents…well, I’d have a lot of pennies. Of course, this isn’t to deny the fundamental right of people to have an opinion, but merely being in possession of such as thing is no guarantee that it is significant, relevant or interesting, in the same way that possessing a duodenum doesn’t make me a proctologist. (Say ‘Ahh!’)


There is a phrase that has gathered momentum to describe the situation in many schools these days: the Behaviour Crisis. I first heard it, years ago, from the pen of a venerable and rigorous pseudonymous writer called OldAndrew. And frankly, from my experiences of schools, from the minute I stepped into the classroom, I think it’s as good a phrase as any. And from talking to the majority of teachers I have ever met, from countless schools throughout the nation. And from the experiences of all the queries I answer on the TES Behaviour Forum, where teachers old and new pour their troubles out in the hope of professional succour.


You’ve never had it so satisfactory


Of course there are critics of this position, who deny that there is anything like a behavioural crisis; that in the majority of schools, behaviour is exceptionally good, and that we mustn’t judge the majority by a tiny crop of mouldy apples. Alan Steer, the previous government’s ‘Behaviour Czar’ (cool title; lucky man. Although I thought a Czar was someone to whom other agencies reported, who possessed structural power, rank and position, rather than being a bearded, genial anti-Cassandra. Still, perhaps I’m wrong) reported in the last political term that all was well, and that anyone who thought otherwise was being a rotter. Ofsted agree: they report that in over 90% of schools, behaviour is good or better, ie exceptionally good. Satisfactory is no longer satisfactory; everything has to be good or better. Production is up, comrades.


Who else thinks this? Seemingly most people involved in running LEAs (quick, take a picture before they all go), who report that behaviour might be poor in other boroughs, but not in theirs, oh no, no, not at all. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Anyone involved in running the educational ship desperately wants to portray everything in the no-longer secret garden as rosy. Or, indeed, good or exceptional. How very surprising. And how very, depressingly counter-factual.


Do teachers need to be teachers to teach?


Says who? Says me, Buster. Says teachers, that’s who. Remember them? Dreadful, awkward chaps.They’re the ones that actually stand in the classrooms and deal with all that non-existent bad behaviour, and huff and puff and get cross and make up stories about naughty children to, presumably fill up the time they spend in between lessons drinking tea from fine china in the staffrooms, or idling away their many holidays on budget cruises around the Devon Coast on their ghastly chartered cruisers. Teachers are the community that knows best what goes on in the classroom, but rarely are their views heard in a meaningful context.

The new Ofsted advisor on flying.

Who the Hell cares what Ofsted thinks goes on in schools? Not I, Grand-mama. They arrive for two days,tops; look at the school data, spend a few hours in the classrooms, and write their reports. And before they arive, the school clenches its collective sphincter, nukes the naughty kids out of sight, and strains to show its best side to the inspectors in the anxious, fawning manner of a dehydrated man trying to pass a dessicated raisin, barely able to squeak out a thin, reedy fart.


But, claim the denialists, where’s the data to confirm this sensationalist dystopia? Well, unsurprisingly, it comes from the teachers. Every time anyone surveys the people who actually stand in the classrooms, rather than run through them like Ghetto tourists in Baltimore (I just read that there are actually Wire-based tours of the notorious badlands popularised in HBO’s award winning TV drama series. We really are all going to Hell, aren’t we? And we’ll all deserve it.)


So every time anyone cares to survey those poor deluded nuisances, we find some interesting results. The NASUWT has just posted some of the feedback from its most recent survey. And unsurprisingly, there’s a degree of divergence from the official picture that I can only describe as ‘statistically significant.’ It surveyed 8000 of its members, who provided the following nuggets:

  • a lack of parental support is a major problem behind pupils’ lack of discipline.
  • many teachers feel let down by the lack of support from parents over behaviour.
  • More than two in three teachers identified a lack of back-up from parents as the most common underlying factor for pupils misbehaving.
  • More than half of teachers in the survey also complained that too many parents were failing to send their children to school with the right equipment.

On the face of it, it could be seen as a bit of a kicking for parents. And to be fair, there are some parents who appear to have learned their parenting skills from watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or confusing Mr Spock with Dr Spock or something. I think it’s a broader problem than that, and it’s unhelpful to simply dump the blame at the doorstops of the family, for reasons I’ll illustrate later.


8000 people; that’s not a bad size for a sample. Of course as I like to repeat to anyone that’ll listen, social science is a commentary on human behaviour, not an irresistible algorithm of certainty. But even taking into account that the kind of people who probably answer NASUWT surveys are a bit more vocal and militant than your average leatherpatch, it’s still a fairly large ‘No’ vote to the denialists. Back in 2009, the same union surveyed over 10,000 teachers in a similar way. That time, it found the following:

  • On average, teachers in primary schools reported that every day 30 minutes of available teaching time is lost as a consequence of pupil misconduct in the classroom
  • In one in every five cases, pupils miss out on 1 hour of teaching time as a result of disruptive/poor pupil behaviour.
  • On average, teachers in secondary schools reported that every day 50 minutes of available teaching time is lost as a consequence of pupil misconduct in the classroom.
  • In one in every five cases, pupils in secondary schools miss out on 1 hour and 15 minutes of available teaching time as a result of disruptive/poor pupil behaviour.
  • Many teachers (61%) reported that they do not have confidence that when a disruptive pupil is referred to school management that the teacher will receive swift support 

Going back to 2004, the UK’s largest teaching union, the NUT, found the following:

  • Two-thirds of 230 teachers questioned for the National Union of Teachers’ survey said indiscipline was preventing them from doing their job.
  • Teachers also voiced concern over “blanket inclusion” in mainstream schools of children with behavioural problems, which took place “without adequate support and resourcing”.
To be honest, some parents need a word.

Back in our Teaching TARDIS, we scoot forward again to 2008, and another survey by the NASUWT. It found this:

  • Almost half of primary school teachers say that the disruptive behaviour of a minority of children in their class is a daily occurrence
  • Acts of physical aggression (hitting, kicking, spitting, uncontrolled outbursts, destroying property) occur at least once a week in almost one in five primary classrooms across all key stages (F/S, KS1, KS2
  • Almost two thirds of teachers believe that pupil behaviour has got worse during the time they have been teaching
  • More than half the teachers surveyed believe that parents are largely to blame for the behaviour that they have to deal with in the classroom

I could go on, but one day I’ll be dead and I don’t have the time to spare. I’m not even cherry picking- keep digging up the surveys and they all sing the same chorus: teachers think that behaviour is pretty rotten; parents are often part of the problem, as are senior staff when they fail to support front line teachers. But isn’t it funny how much these opinions differ from the people who:


a) Don’t actually teach in classrooms, where the behaviour is occurring, and,
b) Have a vested interest in reporting that things aren’t so bad after all?


Did you cuss my ideology?


There are many other factors at work here. On one hand, there appears to be a large camp of well-meaning commentators who appear to view any criticism of behaviour in state schools as an attack on the principle of state schooling itself- as if focusing on the fact that there is a behaviour crisis is simply part of a larger agenda to dismantle the vertebrae of state education. God save us from such a moral panic. Me? I’m all for state schools; I could eat them up with a spoon and ask for seconds. But they’re not perfect, they’re not invulnerable, and they need to be looked after, not diluted by the latest fashionable theory about how children best learn.

Child-centred nutrition.

Here’s why, behaviourally speaking, some schools are less perfect than others: the authority crisis in society. Frank Furedi and others are very eloquent in their description of this state, and I absolutely concur; since the 20th century- Hell, since the Enlightenment– there has been a growing unease about authority based on tradition, or status justified by anything other than reason. The individual has become the unit of society, in a way that would probably please Thatcher and other neo-liberals. Capitalism, the decline in institutions like the Church, the Aristocracy, the caste system, the army, public schools; and the focus on liberty, rights and autonomy, has been a possibly inevitable part of the changes in our society. So far, so descriptive. But it would be childish to describe such a paradigm shift in terms so simple, so moronically blunt as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Such a sea change brings both treasure chests and seaweed. 


With the decline in deference that the emancipation of the serf, the worker, the oppressed has produced, there has also been a defiance towards any form of authority that is based on anything other than reason. ‘Why should I do what you say?’ as one pupil memorably asked me. ‘You’re just a teacher.’


Well, quite. You can only imagine how tiresome it is to attempt to engage an angry, screeching twelve year old in the corridor in a conversation about why there are rules, why they need to be followed, and how everyone benefits in a school community when they aren’t flouted, and how the teacher’s time is probably best not taken up by having to justify the whole theory of hierarchy, the chain of command, the need for children to generally follow the instructions of adults. Honestly, unless you teach, you have no idea how wearying it becomes. 


I know many will say, ‘Oh, but surely it’s great if they grow up questioning everything?’ Yeah, right. That sounds fabulous, until you try to get thirty kids together into a room and teach them calculus. Trust me on that one. See those statistics I quoted above, about how much time is lost in the classroom dealing with poor behaviour? That’s what I’m talking about.


So while, as always, I applaud the NASUWT in any endeavour to find out the opinions of the people who matter in education- teachers- and not just the enormous, corpulent industry that surrounds them like a waxy, oleaginous condom, I offer this note of caution: it isn’t enough to say that the parents are mostly to blame (actually, from what I can see, the findings of the survey don’t make this claim- as usual, it appears to be the oppressed proletariat in the newsrooms who are forced to condense and sex up anything that falls into their laps by their, no doubt, despotic line management).


The reason why children misbehave is because they are allowed to. Adults in the free world are increasingly uneasy with the idea of being an authority figure in children’s lives, openly admitting that they don’t feel that they have the right to act as role models for children, to chide, to guide, to punish and to reward with the certainty that our grandparents enjoyed. Which is a pity, because while we’re not perfect, we’re all they’ve got. And if we don’t assume the mantle of grown-ups, then nobody else will. Or worse, they will, and the lines between child and adult blur more and more, until eventually they end up on interview panels for teacher recruitment. Oh, wait a minute…..

‘Frank: talk to me about the increase in bun sales….’

I see a lot of keyboard time being spent by people who want to claim that behaviour has gotten worse (I think it probably has in the last few decades), and those who claim that it has always been like this. I leave that for finer, more analytical minds than mine to pursue at the moment. Frankly, I’m not sure I care that much. What I do care about is how things are now, and right now, I should say that there’s an enormous stink in the room.


It smells like elephant dung. More tea?