How we solve the behaviour crisis part 1: What the problem is, and why some people can’t see it

I was watching 187, an odd but strangely moving film where Samuel Jackson plays a teacher tormented by his gang-banger students, and I was reminded of Picasso’s proposition that ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth’. Jackson works in a downtown LA sink school, where the teachers pack heat in their desk drawers, the kids are screwing in the portocabins, and the head is so allergic to civil action that teachers are ground to a paste by the indifferent cogs of bureaucracy. Sometimes the line between truth and fiction is diaphanous.

I normally shy away from magic bullets. Complex situations are usually immune to simple solutions. But there's something obvious about schools that I noticed the first day I started training, and it hasn't gone away: behaviour problems crush learning, and strangely, many schools don’t seem to know what to do about it.

Apart from that, did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln?

I often hear people say that behaviour isn't so bad. That there are pockets of unruliness, but on the whole the view has a rosy, crepuscular glow. For example, former Behaviour Czar Sir Allan Steer said in 2009 that:

‘...there is strong evidence from a range of sources that the overall standards of behaviour achieved by schools is good and has improved in recent years. The steady rise in standards needs to be celebrated....the great majority of schools are successfully achieving satisfactory or better standards of pupil behaviour…’

Learning Behaviour: LESSONS LEARNED A review of behaviour standards and practices in our schools. Steer, Alan, 2009

Ofsted agree:

'According to Ofsted inspection data, the majority of schools have Good or Outstanding levels of behaviour. As at December 2011, 92.3% of all schools in England were judged Good or Outstanding for standards of behaviour. A further 7.5% were judged Satisfactory and less than one percent (0.3%) were judged Inadequate.'

(Ofsted, 2012)

On the surface that looks encouraging- very encouraging. So why do many teachers disagree?

Actually, it is quite bad

'There is mixed evidence on the extent of poor behaviour reported by teachers... However, another earlier survey showed 69% of members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) reported experiencing disruptive behaviour weekly or more frequently (Neill, 2001)'

(Ofsted, 2012)

I’ll add that almost every teacher I’ve worked with as a behaviour coach would agree with the latter paragraph, and more personally I’ve never been busier advising teachers crushed by their own realities. I propose that inspection data cannot be relied upon to reveal the true behaviour situation in a school for the following reasons.

1.Senior teachers and middle leaders start hyperventilating about inspectors seeing naughty kids, in an anxious version of the Hawthorne effect. The worst pupils often vanish for a while, mysteriously hidden on trips and temporary exclusions. Staff curiously appear in corridors they haven't walked down in weeks, maintaining order. Often students respond to the observation effect by sharpening up as well.  No, an inspection isn't the best time to see behaviour. Like quantum scientists, the observer affects the experiment.

2. Another reason why there is such disagreement about the extent of the behaviour crisis is that the people who think there isn't one usually work in an entirely different school from those who think it does. Not physically different; there are often several different schools in the same spot. Take two teachers: one has seniority, either of rank or tenure. Known to all pupils, enjoying high status, with a light timetable and a career built on the kids knowing what they can do. They usually have plenty of time to catch up with behaviour issues. They might have the privilege of easier classes. They definitely don't have to grind from class to class with barely a breath in between. The second teacher belongs to a lower caste: new teachers, junior teachers, supply teachers. They work in a parallel universe to the first teacher and his kin. Kids mock them, refuse their wishes, and do what kids do to unfamiliar or uncertain adults. That’s what I mean by a behaviour crisis. Every school is at least two schools, alternate dimensions, layered over each other, barely able to conceive of each others existence.

' bad behaviour in here...'
3. Consider this: the groups who say there isnt a problem are mainly composed of people who don’t have to teach difficult classes: inspectors, senior staff, researchers, teachers of biddable communities. The groups who say there is a problem are usually the ones who experience highly challenging behaviour. The former tend to occupy positions of authority and get to write the reports. The latter don’t get asked very often.

Can you see the problem?

Part II coming soon: How we solve the problem

Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art by Alfred H. Barr Jr., published for The Museum of Modern Art by Arno Press, New York, 1980

Viewed on   10/03/13


  1. Another quality posting Tom Bennett.

    As somebody currently working in that second school, with your extremely useful advice from the IoE talk you did still ringing in my ears, could you include in part two more advice on how those in the second school can survive. What can we do? Remind us. Re-affirm your previous comments.

    It is extremely disappointing. I once attended a staff meeting. A teacher with experience of a few years raised the issue of behaviour in and around the school. Leadership denied the existence of any problem. Any problems were that teacher's doing and his problem to solve.

  2. I do get tired of being told that the behaviour in that second school where I occupy an unenviable position is largely because I did (or didn't) do some imaginary thing that seems totally arbitrary! Either that or I occasionally get told oh it's because you are a woman working in a boys' school!!! Why emply any women then??

    People in that first type of school spend so long with their heads in the sand that I'm sure it gets stuck in their eyes and ears!

    I don't mean to sound negative here it's just grinding pragmatism!

  3. 3. is interesting in it's assumption that senior staff don't have to teach the difficult classes. I know that in 12 years as a HoD and now SLT I have only had 1 (one) top set (which tend to be less challenging) and have always taken on groups that are considered more challenging. I'd be out of any school PDQ if the HoD and SLT teaching load was skewed with top sets and sixth form

    The points about senior staff having more time to follow up behaviour issues is partly true - perhaps a better phrase would be more flexibility of time. Whilst my day on SLT is just as packed as it was as a mainscale teacher I do have much more flexibility on a typical day than a teacher doing 5 lessons 'on the bounce'.

    It's important that when a member of staff is sworn at or whatever that the sanctions applied are absolutely consistant whether that member of staff is SLT; mainscale; admin or mid-day supervisor. Only when that consistency occurs will students tow the line with everyone rather than being selective in their behaviour.

  4. I agree. Last Ofsted at my previous school - two boys (twins Y8) known for being unmanageable were told to stay at home for the two days that Ofsted dropped by, on the pretext that they were fighting in the library a couple of days before. They were usually worse than that, but never told to have duvet-days before!
    Most often, teachers simply do not bring up the behaviour issue, as it is thrown back on them like a boomerang - with the implication that it is the teacher's fault, not the pupil's. "Clearly your differentiation is shoddy, Miss Sprule." Or somesuch. Followed by management licking their pencil stubs and marking said teacher in little red book of incapable whingers. So poor behaviour enjoys one long Rabelaisian Carnival time. While the researchers mentioned in your previous post justify their funding by making ridiculous and feeble minded suggestions, like latter day Lord Longfords, which clearly show they have not taught in a classroom since they could/did escape to the never never land of lost causes - Researchville, far enough down the road from Grange Hill for the cries of the staff not to be heard.....

  5. As usual, Tom, you're talking about the issues that so many management teams are desperate to sweep under the mat, so thank you.

    I'm in the same situation as most of the commenters (so far) - in the second school within my school. It's a tough school, but when I first started there was an acknowledgement by the Head and leadership team that there were behaviour problems and even though nothing was perfect and the problem persisted, there was never the feeling that staff were blamed for disruptive and inappropriate behaviour by students. I'm not saying that the problem was always effectively dealt with - sheer numbers of these kids meant it was impossible to isolate or sanction them all! - but it was incredibly empowering to know that you weren't held responsible. Now, however, after the change to Academy status and change of leadership, behaviour issues are being blamed on staff. I've actually been told that my lessons aren't "engaging enough" (which is cr@p because I know I'm delivering mine in more or less the same way as other members of my dept. and they haven't been told that.) I've been told that, if a student refuses to do any work that I "can't let them do that"; when I said that I could give a pupil a pen, but not force them to write, I was simply told that it was my problem to manage. Needless to say, no suggestions as to how I might do this were forthcoming.

    Eagerly awaiting part 2.

  6. Also eagerly awaiting part 2 whilst recovering from a somewhat disastrous supply stint where I was thrown in the deep end with groups known to be an issue - with little valid support. No SEN information, seating plans of teacher off sick lost by previous supply - the list is endless. Though some permanent staff have little sympathy for supply teachers - I am not there by choice - seeking permanent employment and I would definitely prefer to teach my own subject rather than 'general cover' which I am asked to do more often that subject cover. People be nice to the supply cover - it can be a very lonely place !

  7. I have been the little guy doing a year and a half of supply and now sitting in my advisory ivory tower I would say that I agree completely with your view about distance. The further away you are, the easier everything looks. Teachers are right to be skeptical about the views of experts. I am often asked for advice on inclusive practice for children with BESD and I can feel very conflicted. I recall the overwhelming bitterness that comes from being treated with contempt when all I wanted to do was impart knowledge and help young people to excel their own miserable expectations. The only advice for a teacher that I could give is the following; If you can take contempt with a serene and loving face and then respond calmly and rationally with love for those you teach, you cannot be beaten. Easier said than done. I look forward to part two.

    Love and cuddles,

    Kenneth Lastimer

  8. PS to all the supply, cover and NQTs out there, you may be undervalued but without you this education system would really struggle.


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