How should teachers deal with unruly behaviour? A tale of two schools: one too soft, the other too hard?

Francis Gilbert's picture
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The education story of the moment is the teachers going on strike at Darwen Vale High School in Lancashire in protest against the poor behaviour of the students there. Apparently, the headteacher's has refused to deal with the situation by being "soft" on the pupils. The Daily Mail has fallen in love with the story, covering it exhaustively. I'm not huge fan of the Mail's education coverage and this is largely a case in point: this story for them is proof that our schools are "broken". However, one reporter has noted that some of the parents don't know what the fuss is about. In another Mail story, parents have protested against a headteacher who has cracked down too hard, giving 717 detentions in four days for relatively minor offences such as wearing bracelets or arriving late for a lesson.

Although I am certain that these stories are far more "complex" than they are presented in the media, they are interesting stories to consider because they raise the key issues connected with school discipline. Does one take a "child-centred" approach, or an "authoritarian" approach to school discipline? I was talking about this on Radio 5 Live this week with Steve McCormack, a teacher-journalist who has written extensively on this issue. McCormack was more nuanced than the normal people you get slagging off state schools; he said there was a problem but appeared to blame parents more than teachers. I pointed out that Ofsted says that behaviour is good in 86% of schools; McCormack felt that nothing Ofsted says is reliable. I replied by saying that the school inspectorate remain, for all their faults, the most objective voice on the issue.

The issue is incredibly complex. There are so many factors that lead to poor behaviour. By and large our state schools are orderly places where discipline is good, but certain causes lead to problems. The top ones are probably these:

1. Schools with high staff and pupil turnover.

2. Schools which admit pupils from disporportionately deprived backgrounds, where expectations of pupils are very low.

3. Schools where lessons are unengaging and teachers are not committed.

4. Poorly managed schools where there is a "cover-up" culture and problems are not openly discussed or dealt with.

5. Unsupported and "demoralised" schools.

This said, committed teachers can make a big difference if they stick with it, carving out their own "niche" even in difficult circumstances.

My feeling is that we need an Aristotelean "golden mean" between the "child-centred" approach and a more teacher-led one, where it's clear the teacher is in charge and sets the ground rules, but involves pupils in the process.
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Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 18:09

It's hard to believe that you are writing here about how OFSTED are the objective voice on behaviour, yet in 2008 you wrote the following about OFSTED:

"…if a school has been wonderfully politically correct, it can get away with a good report – but it may be a hotbed of bad behaviour and indiscipline."

It is equally hard to accept your claim that state schools have good discipline when in 2007 you wrote:

"Unfortunately far too few schools in the country are well managed …even the ones with good reputations... I have been attacked by many teachers and educationalists for highlighting the shoddy discipline in many of our schools. For me it is a national scandal."

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 18:16

Thank you for pointing out this Andrew. Ofsted can't get it right every time, but they still remain the most reliable voice we have. And I do think schools should be more honest if they have discipline problems. By Ofsted's count one in 10 schools have a problem with behaviour, which clearly isn't good enough. That said, it needs to be stressed that the overwhelming majority are fine. But it's a complex issue with no easy answers. The school that my son is going to had very significant discipline problems in 2007 when I wrote that piece. I think things are much better now.

Andy Smithers's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 18:20

A poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers shows that 6 out of 10 teachers believe behaviour is worse now than it was a decade ago as reported in today's Independent.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 18:24

So just to check, opinions you have about the whole state system are actually only really based on how you find your children's schools to be at any given moment in time?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 18:55

In the last couple of days, I've been reading your blog Andrew and I realise that you are a sincere voice now. I especially enjoyed your last post on me! http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/
I think your approach and voice is an important one because it's important not to be complacent. As you know, I feel much more positive about state schools than I did, but I need people like you to stop me getting too carried away. These issues are incredibly difficult, but, on a certain level, I have decided to see the glass half full, rather than half empty, and that in this time when state schools are threatened with mass privatisation, it's important to support the key value that every child deserves to go to a great local school.

Gareth's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 19:24

Surely putting 'authority' in opposition to 'child centred' is introducing a false dichotomy. Those teachers who exercise their authority well are, by and large, doing it for the benefit of the children. A classroom with no authority isn't child centred at all.

Perhaps it would be better to set the capricious use of authority by teachers who are drunk on power, against the loving use of authority by teachers who are interested in their student's education.

Anon's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 19:51

So Francis... reading more into Andrew's blog, you used to talk about how bad things were in state schools, and now you more or less support them... interesting. What made you change your mind?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 20:04

It was a combination of factors: personal, political -- and academic. In brief, I was an "elitist" who believed that social segregation in schools was not exactly right, but would be good for me and my family. I saw the terrible consequences of such an attitude when my son was at private school, and was also finding myself convinced by the evidence from various bits of research (I started a PhD in Education) that socially segregated schools don't work for anyone, but are especially damaging towards our poorest students. I've written about it:
http://www.francisgilbert.co.uk/2009/10/why-i-moved-my-son-from-a-prep-s...
http://www.francisgilbert.co.uk/2010/04/why-do-our-politicians-think-ame...

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 10:35

The debate about discipline in schools at the moment is rather like the debate around bullying in schools at about the time ChildLine started. Many schools denied there was a problem, while others that did risked being villified.

In truth, all schools had issues with bullying, and that's why all schools now have a bullying policy.

That's not to say that all schools are dreadful places where bullying is rife. It's just to admit that in organisations, not just schools, there will be people who bully (and shirk, and steal, and discriminate). It even happens in Parliament. What's important is how the organisation handles it.

We now have the same scenario with discipline. All schools, just as all organisations, will have problems with discipline to a greater or lesser extent. Let's recognise that and then we can move on to decide what to do about it rather than spending all the time arguing about the extent of indiscipline and whether it's being covered up.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 11:37

I think you're right Janet. As you may know about, I've been on the wrong end of some poor behaviour, but when you really investigate it, the causes have been complex. No child deserves to be in a chaotic classroom. Creating a culture where teachers and pupils can be honest about what's going on would be good. I believe Ofsted have got better at tracking problems because they do proper surveys of pupils, teachers and parents when they inspect now. It's much harder to cover up problems than it used to be.

Andrew Old's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 11:59

"It’s much harder to cover up problems than it used to be."

They spend only two days in schools now. Of course, it's not harder to cover up problems.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 12:09

Managing pupil behaviour is complex. Those who face classes everyday need a range of strategies to be used when appropriate. That said, evidence given to the Education Select Committee highlighted two areas:

1 The importance of support from senior teachers.
2 Training for teachers in classroom management.

The government's document "Ensuring Good Behaviour in Schools" is encouraging. It highlights the importance of respect, courtesy, a safe, structured enviornment, and head teachers' role in ensuring these. However, I'm not sure about the expectation that "every teacher WILL be good at managing and improving children's behaviour". In theory, this aim is exemplary. However, in practice, I know that there were times when I was good at this but other times when it went pear-shaped, sometimes for circumstances outside my control (eg a fight) and sometimes because I'd misjudged a situation.

The government's guidelines also stress the importance of parental support. However, the summary launches too quickly into describing punative measures against parents (eg prosecution). My years of experience with parents have shown me that many parents of unruly children are themselves upset by this behaviour. They need support - not threats.

One area little discussed is school layout. Schools with too many hidden areas make it difficult to supervise pupils properly. Classroom design can also mitigate against teachers' ability to teach and control (my last classroom was L-shaped, too small and had poor accoustics).

As I said, managing behaviour is complex. It's not helped by hysterical headlines which imply that the state education system is imploding, or simplistic slogans like "Bring back the cane".

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