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Education matters: Is behaviour in schools really getting worse?

11:51 16 April 2014

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

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Geoff Barton: From the relative tranquility of the Easter holidays I am wondering – like the bloke in a bookshop who asks where the section on paranoia is only to be told “it’s behind you” – whether I might be overdoing my conspiracy theories.

What I’ve been querying is this: is someone somewhere saving up the daftest education stories and then deliberately publishing them in the middle of the school break? Is someone trying to wind us teachers up?

Or is it just that the media is routinely filled with nutty education stories and that those of us working in schools are too consumed by the day job to notice them?

Either way, this morning I spluttered with undignified force into my mid-morning coffee when I read another mirthless report about school discipline.

‘Bad behaviour in students is glossed over to maintain schools’ reputation’, declared the Daily Telegraph headline.

The gist of the story appears to be that even in schools where Ofsted have deemed behaviour to be outstanding, conduct isn’t always perfect.

Yes, dear reader, the word is out. Children and teenagers sometimes misbehave. It’s official, and there’s a “major ten-year survey” from the University of East Anglia to prove it.

The researchers’ conclusion is that the level of indiscipline in schools is being “seriously underestimated” because of the pressure to satisfy inspectors and keep expulsion rates down.

In other words, when the inspectors are in, schools do all they can to hide any misbehaviour.

I’m not quite sure what we are supposed to make of all of this.

At our proudly comprehensive school of 1400 students, parents tell us that they send their children to us because – among other things – they like the emphasis on discipline. They know that if a student ever swears or fights or deliberately damages property, then there will be consequences.

These may include internal exclusion – disappearance into what our deputy headteacher charmingly terms ‘Alcatraz’ – or a fixed term exclusion at home (only being readmitted to the school once student and parent have signed a behaviour contract), or – if necessary – permanent exclusion.

Like many schools, we take a firm line on behaviour.

But we aren’t naive enough to think that this means some students in some lessons won’t misbehave. And frankly we know that there will be times when teachers get it wrong too, saying something they shouldn’t or reacting wrongly to a stressful situation.

So my feeling is that the Telegraph article is something of a non-story, a bit of flotsam that has surfaced in the calm waters of a school holiday and which will now drift towards the horizon and disappear.

It’s also – if you’ll forgive my choice of metaphor in this age when corporal punishment is banned – giving our critics another stick to beat us with. Because one of the implications of the story is that behaviour in schools in England is worse than in other countries.

I’m not quite sure how this is judged.

I know that when our students go on their annual exchange visit to a school in Denmark, they are struck by the very different expectations of teachers and students there. There’s no uniform; students call teachers by their first names; students and staff can smoke in designated areas if they choose. Who’s to decide whether behaviour is better or worse than here?

I know also from visiting schools in Shanghai that the kind of boisterous behaviour seen around their corridors – the running, the shouting, the giddiness – is something we would consider too rowdy. Yet on entering their classrooms, the Chinese children stand in regimented respect for their teachers and listen in studious silence while being lectured to for up to an hour.

In other words, behaviour is a slippery subject.

For me, the real story isn’t surprise that there is some bad behaviour in schools from time to time. In any community, whether of young people or adults, there will be lapses in conduct.

The real test is what a school does to set clear expectations of how to behave and the how it follows up any examples of poor behaviour.

And after thirty years of working in a range of schools, I see standards of behaviour that are far better than when I was at school and expectations that are far higher.

Unfortunately, reports about good behaviour don’t make good headlines.

--

Sixth Form joke:

I had parrot curry earlier. Now it keeps repeating on me.

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