White lines, don’t do it? Behind the media spin, Spielman’s misquoted comments on behaviour are cause for celebration

Spielman at her address to the Festival of Education
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Brace yourself: Tom Brown’s School Days are about to make a comeback. According to recent headlines, Ofsted have indicated they’ll soon be expecting schools to make like Bash Street and get medieval on their classes: 

‘Ofsted backs return to old-school punishments’ thundered the Times. ‘Ofsted boss: give pupils lines, community service and detention for misbehaviour,’ gasped iNews. The Daily Mail, sensing blood in the water, put gas in the tank with ‘Ban phones in schools and bring back old-fashioned punishments like lines and litter picking, Ofsted chief demands,’ and it wasn’t clear if this made them happy it was happening or sad that it didn’t go far enough. 

That was nothing. Half an hour before the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman delivered a keynote speech at the Wellington Festival of Education this week, I appeared on a radio talk show. The host opened with, ‘So, Ofsted wants to bring back old punishments like the cane and the belt. Tom Bennett, what’s your view on that?’ By dinner time I expected her to be campaigning for crucifixion, stabbing. As you can imagine, the response on social media was measured and thoughtful. ‘Not up to her job…God save us from a woman who went to school in the 60s and thinks that should be the model….’ ‘How can you ask disturbed children to write lines….’ ‘This woman has no idea…’ ‘How many schools actually do this….’ Ad absurdum, ad infinitum. 

Everyone can relax. Spielman is recommending nothing of the sort. She’s not advocating a return to the tawse, the elephant slipper, or even writing out lines particularly. What is interesting is that everyone appears to be up in arms about fake news these days, but no one appears to be particularly concerned to do anything about it themselves. Everyone seems determined that children be raised to critical thinkers, but some seem determined to avoid it personally. Headlines are circus barkers, reeling in the real estate of your attention. Trust them like a chain email from a philanthropic billionaire. Read the full article before you comment. And try to discern points that have been directly attributed to the subject of the article, and which ones are the writer’s summary.

Her comments, which I was there to hear at the Festival, were actually sensible and refreshingly practical. So sensible that her detractors had to invent things she said in order to get properly upset about them. Luckily, we can read the text here, and I think it’s worth picking through its bones:

Amanda's Epistle to the Wellingtonians

....I also want us to have a clearer focus on behaviour. We welcomed Tom Bennett’s 2017 behaviour review and are looking at how we can incorporate the recommendations relating to Ofsted in the new framework.

Well, I would agree with that, wouldn’t I? But it’s been a long battle to get the concerns I
raise to the level they are. I believe behaviour is one of our top priorities in schools, and I’ll bang a drum for better understanding and training until the stars burn cold. In a world where behaviour has fallen off the radar as a concern, seeing it back there fills me with a timid optimism. 

Pupil behaviour is the number one concern that parents raise with us: the first question they want answered in a report is ‘what the behaviour is like?’, ‘is the school a safe environment?’ and ‘will they be protected from bullying?’ We also know that behaviour is a primary driver of low morale in the profession. My position is that I want to see behaviour get the attention it deserves in our inspections, probably through a separate behaviour and attitudes judgement.

Of course it should. Of course it should. In what universe would the safety of the child in the school NOT be the number one priority of every parent, or society more broadly? The separate category is interesting, as I think it’s been unhelpful to lump it in with other aspects of a school’s evaluation. Not that they can’t be related (obviously they are, intimately) but it’s so important, it deserves its own focus. And parents and students deserve to know how safe they will be. I hope this happens.

And when I talk about behaviour, I’m not just talking about serious disruption or bullying, important as these are. I want us to look just as hard at low-level disruption, which stops pupils learning and which can make the job of classroom management miserable.

I hit the ‘like’ button for this like a monkey with a toffee hammer. Low level disruption sounds cute, but it’s kryptonite for any lesson. It normalises rudeness, laziness, and grinds teachers down over weeks and months. It is no small issue. It is the most common reason for classroom behaviour to disintegrate. Taking it as seriously than the more rare, extreme forms of misbehaviour is right on the money. 

I'd pull the lever myself- hanging's too good for them 

I fundamentally disagree with those who say that taking a tough stance on behaviour is unfair to children. Quite the opposite, there is nothing kind about letting a few pupils spoil school for everyone else. That is why we expect heads to put in place strong policies that support their staff in tackling poor behaviour. And I think it’s entirely appropriate to use sanctions, such as writing lines, ‘community service’ in the school grounds, such as picking up litter, and school detentions. And where they are part of a school’s behaviour policy, they’ll have our full support.

The League of Professionally Outraged People should read that back a few times as they bite down on a rolling pin and huff Echinacea. She’s NOT advocating lines, NOT expecting schools to do a damn thing except manage behaviour consciously, deliberately and vigorously. No mention of corporal punishment, children up chimneys, or water torture. In fact, almost the opposite: if a school leader has policies in place designed to promote better behaviour, then Ofsted will back the Head teacher’s right to do so. And they mustn’t be worried that if they use mild deterrents like low level sanctions that they will be penalised for doing so. So, what she said was actually a vocal declaration of support for head teachers. But when did truth, or facts matter when there is outrage to be manufactured?

Repellere PiXLarum! 
Most of the conversations I’ve had with people in the last 24 hours have been around this point. A frightening number of people seem to be utterly against any idea of sanction at all. Which is odd because in all my journeys I’ve never seen a single example of a community that didn’t use some form of sanction to reinforce its boundaries and agreed conventions. If history has produced such an entity, it must be hidden and lost, like Atlantis. Real communities need boundaries and consequences. 

Of course, it needs much more than these. Good behaviour is promoted in so many ways: consistency of messaging, professional warmth, high expectations, good interpersonal skills, efficient chains of command and administration and so on. Sanctions are merely part of the jigsaw. But they are part of the jigsaw. Without their option, no school can operate. What Spielman is saying is only one of the most practical sand sensible things I’ve heard an HMCI say in years. No wonder it upset people. In the field of education, speaking the truth truly is a revolutionary act. 

Victorian educationalist bans electricity

There’s no doubt that technology has made the challenge of low-level disruption even worse, which by the way is why I also support recent calls to back heads who have decided that the way to improve behaviour is to ban mobile phones in their schools. I’m not the target audience, but nevertheless I am yet to be convinced of the educational benefits of all day access to ‘Snapchat’ and the like; and the place of mobile phones in the classroom seems to me dubious at best.

While we all pick ourselves up from the floor as we realise that Amanda Spielman does not use Snapchat (‘Out wiv besties Seany Seany Harford and Lucky Luke LUV EM #blazin’), this should no longer be up for debate. Smartphones may, in some boutique circumstances have utility in a classroom context. But their default accessibility is an enormous burden on classroom management. The distraction is simply too great for many students. And it is the least able, the most in need, who suffer the most from these distractions. Despite the exhortation of hobbyists and enthusiasts, there is very little evidence that the use of smart tech adds much to educational outcomes, and a good deal of evidence to suggest it can impede the focus of many. For far too long, tech was unquestioningly seen as an incontrovertible boon to learning. This Appeal to Novelty has been disputed and dissected more and more, and I’m glad of it. The tech dividend is a fairy tale spun by manufacturers and gadget acolytes. Children need protecting from such passions, and schools should be spaces where children do not feel they have to be online all the time. 

It takes a village

There are obvious limitations in what we’re able to observe about behaviour in a single day. But we are looking to overcome them. As Tom suggests, there is scope for more dialogue with a wider range of staff – such as trainees and lunchtime supervisors – who are more likely to witness poor behaviour. 

This would be a huge step. Too often inspectors speak to a skewed sample of positive, hand-picked pupils and staff. To really find out what a school is like I recommend talking to the most vulnerable, marginalised or less visible members of the community; those most likely to see or experience the sharp end of behaviour and misbehaviour. There is an ocean of informed opinion here that can be mined. 

We’re establishing an expert advisory panel of heads and teachers who have taken a strong and successful approach to clamping down on poor behaviour to give us their advice. 

Again, very interesting. Not a lot of detail, but it would be a big step forward towards a practitioner-informed understanding of good behaviour and how to achieve it even in the most challenging of circumstances. 

Alongside that, we fully support Tom’s proposal of a national behaviour survey. Such a survey would allow pupils and staff to give us their honest, anonymous appraisal of behaviour in their schools before an inspection takes place. 

I can’t emphasise this enough. Inspections are often synthetic experiences; the school is on best behaviour, and frequently everyone holds in their stomachs and buries the bodies until Ofsted are on the stage coach out of Dodge. This isn’t just misleading, it’s dangerously suggestive. Learning is inextricably linked to the quality of behaviour, and schools with poor, but less obvious problems, can be given clean bills of health when they need a sick note to improve. Ironically, a ‘Good’ judgement can make the patient less well, not more. 

The only way to really dig under the stone and see what lies beneath? Ask people- anonymously. And not just a few; everyone. All staff, all students. What is your experience of behaviour? How frequently are lessons disrupted? What types of behaviour? This approach isn’t perfect but it’s 100 times more valuable than the performance of an inspection. It can be a quick survey done online, collated, crunched and stored, to be used in 100 different ways. In a future post I hope to expand upon what model this survey could take.

Finally, I want to address, once and for all, the cacophony of rumours we hear about badly behaved children being hidden, perhaps on a conveniently timed spontaneous school trip, during inspections. My research and analysis teams are currently designing a study to try and assess the extent of the problem and what we might do about it.

This, and indeed, this. It’s heartening to see the HMCI take this seriously at last. Sadly, I can only confirm that this is a very, very common practice in some schools. I boggle at those who say it doesn’t happen, and invite them to get out a little. 

We will be airing more concrete proposals for consultation on the framework shortly. In the interests of expectation management, I should point out that it will be an evolution not a revolution. Schools rightly expect stability, and policy makers need a degree of comparability to make informed intervention and policy decisions.

Comments like this mark Spielman out as a sober, careful and professional partner to the school sector, but that gets drowned out by the headlines and fury. Slow and steady progress rather than moving fast and breaking things. I wonder which model teachers and heads would prefer?

Nor do I expect Ofsted to be doubling its budget any time soon. But within the envelope I do have, I want to be sure we use our resources to maximum effect. I’ve spoken before about the amount of positive feedback I have had about the professional dialogue between inspectors and schools. Many heads find it to be invaluable CPD and a real driver of school improvement. So, a key priority is rebalancing inspector time, so that there’s more time on site engaging with you and less time spent on the less visible activities.

She ends on another note of sobriety and caution; that Ofsted expect to do better with the resources they have in general and are looking at ways to maximise the good of what they do. So much for the Sturm Und Drang of recent years.

So far, much of this is hypothetical. We’ll know it when we see it. But I urge the commentariat to look beyond the thrilling but wrong froth of melodrama and listen to what is actually being  suggested. These ideas have all come from teachers and heads, not manufactured in the Ofsted hollowed-out volcano. God knows schools, and children, deserve classrooms that are safe, where children are supported. And I think this speech foreshadowed some very good things indeed.