Following my post yesterday about troublemakers in education, and how important they are, I debated with two people on Twitter who objected to the claim that there is a widespread behaviour problem in England’s schools. They objected on the grounds that I could not provide them with convincing evidence that this problem exists. They were particularly unimpressed with any evidence based on the experiences of classroom teachers. You may not be surprised to learn that neither of these individuals are classroom teachers themselves.
Consider the evidence from Ofsted. The overall picture appears positive: according to Ofsted, behaviour is good or outstanding in 92% of schools. But when we consider this evidence more closely, the picture is not so rosy.
Firstly, visitors to a school, especially when they are preannounced, will not see the reality. Pupils usually behave better for visitors, especially when they are important. However badly behaved they are, they usually have a certain loyalty to their school. I have seen this over and over again during my years as a teacher. Most pupils who would normally be disruptive and rude become polite when visitors from outside the school enter the classroom.
Secondly, there are all the tricks that schools play to avoid Ofsted’s seeing bad behaviour, such as sending home the worst pupils or organising special trips for them. By definition, of course, these tricks will not find their way into official evidence.
After considering these factors, it’s amazing that the figure for good or outstanding behaviour is not 100%. It’s amazing that there are 8% of schools where behaviour is so appalling that they couldn’t put on a good show for Ofsted.
And in any case, what about the 8%? Even if Ofsted’s overall assessment were accurate, that 8% amounts to tens of thousands of children. Are we satisfied with a system where so many must suffer disruption and fear every day of their school lives? Can we afford to be complacent? Would we be happy if 8% of hospitals failed to provide adequate care to children? These tens of thousands of youngsters are required by law to go every day to a place that is often unsafe and frightening.
Now let’s consider the evidence of the first hand witnesses: the classroom teachers. They see the reality of school life, day in, day out. They are not sheltered from it in the way that senior leaders, consultants and inspectors inevitably are. Because Ofsted will never get the real picture, because official research will never reveal it, it is classroom teachers who must tell us what is really going on in England’s classrooms.
So here’s my witness statement. None of the schools I have worked in previously have had good behaviour across the board. In all of them, there were classes where disruption was frequent. In all of them, there was a significant minority of pupils who were rude, disrespectful and uncooperative. In all of them, these pupils were usually allowed to remain in classes and damage the learning of others, unless they did something really outrageous. In all of them, there were many areas of the school that were not properly policed, and because the dangerous pupils were allowed to roam free and did not fear serious consequences, such places were not safe.
The other first hand witnesses are the pupils themselves, of course. My wife was talking to a friend recently, both of whose children have avoided going to the toilet at school because they are afraid of the people who hang around them. Neither of these children go to schools where Ofsted considers behaviour to be poor. But whatever Ofsted says, these are not civilised places.
Meanwhile, in the same city, while most children are finding ways of surviving varying degrees of disorder and danger, there are sixty applicants for every place in the schools of a multi-academy trust which, like Michaela, tackles behaviour through school wide discipline and thorough training to build a culture of kindness and respect. Sixty applicants to every place. There’s some evidence for you. Large numbers of parents are sick of the bog-standard, complacent norm, where disruption and disorder are common in the classroom, and danger lurks in the corners of playgrounds, avoided by teachers who know they will not be backed up by senior staff.
This is the most criminal thing of all. There are schools which demonstrate clearly that it doesn’t have to be like this. They show that it is possible for all schools, whatever their intake, to be ordered, civilised places. But for most parents and children in that city where my wife’s friend lives, they can only dream of a place in such a school. Meanwhile, the daily battle goes on.