I suspect most school leaders will be clear that Tom Bennett has never been a Russian Emperor. His wish not to be referred to as such is refreshing, not only because “tsar” is a media cliché, but because nobody has a monopoly of wisdom when it comes to dealing with poor behaviour.
Tom has, of course, been appointed by the Government to help teachers in England address “low-level disruption” in the classroom. So, as he draws together his working group in response to the Secretary of State’s request, it may be timely to offer a perspective.
His task is somewhat unenviable. Recent publicity would give us all the impression that malaise in our schools is endemic. We are led to believe that many teachers have lost the plot and are content to work within very loose parameters tolerating all sorts of misdemeanours. Tom alludes to “a disintegration of an understanding of when adults do need to be adults” (Times, 17 June 2015). I don’t agree with him. That is not my experience.
So, how big a problem is misbehaviour in schools and why should we be concerned? It would be foolish to deny there is room for improvement. Equally, a sense of perspective is vital. According to Ofsted (HMCI Annual Report 2013/14) the past two years have shown remarkable stability with 70 per cent of secondary schools judged good or better in terms of their overall effectiveness. This is an improvement on previously. Furthermore, primary schools’ overall effectiveness has shown significant improvement across the past three years.
So, it may be that children are not really swinging from the proverbial chandeliers at all. However, Ofsted make two further and interesting points. It says that “in too many (secondary) schools, poor behaviour continues to be a problem”, and that “the best schools focus on high-quality teaching”.
Sir Andrew Carter’s report of January 2015 reviewing initial teacher training recommends an emphasis on practical advice in dealing with poor behaviour. While hardly new, this is well placed, particularly if it becomes more firmly embedded. What concerns me, however, is that we should not over-emphasise this at the expense of really effective teaching and learning.
The very best teachers may indeed have a well-rehearsed array of techniques to influence and control behaviour when the need arises. However, in my experience, this is merely a backdrop to organising an inspiring lesson which motivates and enthuses the learner. There is then little need to manage distractions and disruption because there is little of it. Whenever it has been my privilege to experience truly jaw-droppingly brilliant teaching, every child is fully engaged and any thoughts of misbehaviour are very distant.
So let’s keep the emphasis on what is most important, namely inspiring teaching, while acknowledging that a range of effective techniques to create the right environment needs to be in every teacher’s toolbox. To promote and nurture this in schools requires regular and deep reflection on what genuinely makes a difference, both at system level within an organisation and also for each and every serving teacher.
One other point. Tom says that teachers should encourage good behaviour by rewarding, thanking and praising children. This may help establish and maintain an effectively authoritative tone and get the relationships right.
However, several studies have found that while praise is present in many classrooms, it is has a relatively low effect in terms of impact on learning. One study showed that feedback without praise has a greater effect on achievement than feedback with praise. Maybe we should praise our children to make them feel welcome, but perhaps decouple this from critically important feedback about their learning.
I wish the new working group the very best. I also hope its emphasis is on ensuring school leaders keep a sharp and well-placed focus on what really makes the difference in teaching and learning.