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Another Andrew Old Round Up

September 23, 2014

There’s been a bit of a lack of blogposts lately due to a mix of work and other commitments, but I thought I’d take the time to let you know what I’ve been up to, or am about to be up to.

  1. The ResearchED conference was earlier this month. You can now see me interviewing OFSTED supremos Sean Harford and Mike Cladingbowl here. For some reason the part where I ask for questions via Twitter was cut, so if you wonder why part-way through the video I start looking at my phone, then I can assure you I didn’t get bored and I am not playing Angry Birds.
  2. I wrote a few pages for a book, “Don’t Change the Lightbulbs“. Published in aid of charity, the book looks great and I’m really happy with how my section “Ten Things OFSTED Won’t Like” turned out. Please buy it.
  3. On Thursday I am speaking on a panel at a Battle Of Ideas satellite event in Pimlico, on the topic of “What Makes a Good School”. Details can be found here.
  4. On Saturday I will be doing a workshop on “Fluency in Mathematics” at the La Salle Education maths conference. There are still a handful of free tickets available here.
  5. On the 18th of October I should be on another panel, this time at the Battle Of Idea Festival. The topic is: “Lessons from Asia: what is a world-class education?”. Details available here.
  6. On the 23rd of October, I should be speaking to the Warwickshire Fabian Society, about “Obstacles to teaching”. Entrance is free and the event takes place from 7:30 pm (to 9 pm) at 28 Regent Place, Rugby, CV21 2PN
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Why Most Behaviour Management Advice Doesn’t Work

September 9, 2014

This is the fourth and final post in my series of posts on discipline systems, originally inspired by this blogpost from @headguruteacher. The other 3 are:

  1. What Makes A School Discipline System Work?
  2. Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System
  3. The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)

I’ve put it in different ways, but most of what I’ve talked about has been the extent to which discipline systems and school culture, not teacher skill, determine behaviour. I’ve worked at a lot of different schools, and learnt that my effectiveness at behaviour management seems to vary massively between the schools. As I argued in the third post above, student expectations, usually acquired from their peers, have more impact than anything the teacher chooses to do. This is why I am outraged about many of those snake oil salesman who offer individual teachers a “magic bullet” solution to behaviour, usually built around platitudes about winning kids over. In particular, ignore anyone who claims to be able to solve behaviour problems by:

  • Adopting a particular attitude;
  • Using a particular style of teaching;
  • Being nice to students;
  • Rejecting punishment/sanctions/discipline;
  • Negotiating with students;
  • Staying calm (I’m not saying this is bad, but it is really unhelpful as advice);
  • Avoiding confrontation;
  • Solving children’s “underlying problems”.

But here I want to be sceptical even about the well-intentioned and more practical advice often given to teachers. If expectations at a school are low than behaviour will become challenging in response to any attempt to improve behaviour. That includes really well-thought out and cleverly planned methods and systems. No classroom strategy will work if kids truly don’t want it to work. Where teacher strategies work it is either because the kids wanted to behave and the teacher made it easy for them to do so, or where teachers have persisted with their strategies, even where they didn’t seem to be working, until the kids lost the will to fight. For this reason I have seen the following strategies have both positive and negative effects (in some cases I’ve seen the same approach both work brilliantly and fail utterly):

  • Warning systems;
  • Telling classes to stand up until they are quiet;
  • Reward systems;
  • Shouting;
  • Calling parents;
  • Lining kids up outside the classroom door;
  • Waiting until students are in the room and quiet before starting the lesson;
  • Counting down to get quiet;
  • Confronting behaviour publicly;
  • Confronting behaviour privately;
  • Praise;
  • Dressing really smartly;
  • Monitoring the amount of work closely and punishing insufficient work harshly;
  • Threats (or promises) to report back to form tutors/SMT;
  • Sitting down at the front of the room for the entire lesson;
  • Taking marking into the classroom and marking during the lesson (I admit I have only seen this work as a behaviour management strategy for cover lessons, but in the first school I worked at taking work with you to cover lessons indicated you were not supply staff and were also confident the kids wouldn’t misbehave);
  • Following the school behaviour policy;
  • Asking students to work in silence.

Sometimes, the strategies succeeded because the kids wanted to behave, and they helped kids comply without losing face. Sometimes they failed because every strategy would fail and any sign that the class was behaving well and working was such a break with expectations that it would upset the kids and they’d act to stop it. In other cases, success or failure was specific to the school, year group, or even class because of what they are used to. A particular rule or sanction that seems fair to one class, because they are used to it, will seem outrageous to another. Some parents will support, some won’t. Some year heads or managers are so feared or loved (frequently both together) that mentioning their name gives a teacher power, while the names of others will result in a derisive chortle. Some classes are happy to stand in the corridor, or behind their chairs indefinitely and, when teachers wait for their compliance, they will wait for the teacher to give up waiting. The triggers for bad behaviour and the cues for good behaviour vary between schools and between classes. The strategies listed above are worth having in reserve, but until you know your school and your classes you won’t know what will work and whether it failed for a specific reason, or because they would have kicked off regardless.

Is there any universally useful behaviour advice? It is very little, but I’ll give what I can to avoid this being a counsel of despair:

  1. Observe other teachers with your students. It is useful to have seen them behave and for them to know you have seen them behave. Or even just for them to see you know a teacher they behave for.
  2. Use a seating plan and have several copies to hand. It is always best to know which student you are dealing with.
  3. Write down anything serious or any detention set immediately including the exact wording of any insults or swearing even if it seems unforgettable. Stress will make you forgetful and undermine your follow up.
  4. Be consistent. Enforce rules even when you regret instituting them, and only change them when you have an excuse to change them, not because they were disobeyed. Be prepared to stick with strategies even when they don’t work; good behaviour management strategies can still be resisted at first. Follow through on punishments.
  5. Don’t put up with the obviously unacceptable, no matter who tells you it is normal. It would be better to drop out of teaching completely and feel a failure for it, than become a human punching bag for a few years and then drop out of teaching because it made you ill.

And remember, particularly if you’ve just started teaching, it all becomes easier with time.

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10 Things To Avoid in INSET

September 5, 2014

At the start of a new year teachers face at least a day of CPD. Here is my attempt to identify the worst possibilities (with thanks to all those who suggested things on Twitter or told me what hadn’t yet died out).

  1. Anti-education videos. In the old days it used to be “Shift Happens“. Now it is more likely to be Ken Robinson’s Animate. Both are quire explicitly arguing that kids should learn less.
  2. Teaching programmes. These are a mix of theories and activities that are meant to indicate a different way to teach. Some are expensive, others largely in the public domain. The ratio of bullshit to insight provided by the methods is remarkably high but they tend to have a cult following that will throw money at them and force them on other teachers. The biggest one is Building Learning Power. Others include TEEP, Kagan Structures and Mantle of the Expert. The most ridiculous programme of the lot, not even deserving the name “teaching”, was the (still not completely dead) Brain Gym.
  3. Taxonomies. This can be a way to subdivide learning. If so this is usually Bloom’s (in either original or revised versions) or its close relative SOLO. The idea is that there is a generic structure to learning that can be applied across disciplines to understand one’s subject better. Perhaps they fit some subjects better than others, but, inevitably, they are no substitute for actually knowing your subject and its structure properly in the first place. Far worse is where it is a way to subdivide thinking, like Thinking Hats (below) or teaching methods (like the learning pyramid/Dale’s Cone of experience). And the absolute worst of the lot is when it is a way to subdivide learners by “learning style” (again, something which is still not dead despite being utterly discredited) or “left and right brain”. 
  4. Pre-determined discussions. Often in groups with somebody senior monitoring each table, this is a way of manufacturing “buy-in”. The idea is to have a discussion where ambitious people just repeat what those in charge wanted to hear. Flip charts and post-it notes feature heavily. The big craze a few years ago was having to write answers about what students should be like around an outline of a person. The correct answers were “independent”, “resilient”, and “motivated”. Any attempt to say “clever” or “good at maths” was considered a joke.
  5. OFSTED training. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they claim that they don’t want to see a particular teaching style, or even that they won’t grade teaching, nobody believes them. So schools are still telling teachers how to game inspection.

    A list of “what OFSTED want”

  6. Sensible things made into gimmicks. I really don’t have a problem with Carol Dweck’s concept of a “Growth Mindset” if it means kids are encouraged to work hard by telling them they will get smarter. I do have a problem with the “weaponised” versions involving stickers and questionnaires. This seems like a rerun of AfL, where perfectly sensible ideas about feedback turned into compulsory mini-whiteboards and insane levels of differentiation.
  7. Objective Mania. I don’t have a problem with learning objectives. I really don’t. A few words clarifying what kids need to know or practice can only help with my planning, and is unlikely to hinder their learning. However, multiple objectives to be copied down are a pain. These include “WALT and WILF”, “All/Most/Some” and “Must/Should/Could”. This is not differentiation, it is obstruction. And the worst of all is having to put levels or grades on objectives.
  8. Behaviour Training that blames teachers. Teachers need to be taught how to use the procedures and where to get help. Also useful to tell them a few tricks appropriate to the school, and warnings about what won’t work. However, too much behaviour INSET, particularly from outsiders, is about making teachers feel they are to blame when they face bad behaviour. Planning well, being nice, making lessons fun, will not sort out behaviour problems. Being told to keep them to yourself (“swallow your own smoke”) will make them worse. And don’t get me started on anything with “restorative” in the name.
  9. Bad SEN. Don’t know why but nothing seems to attract nonsense like SEN. The most common types of nonsense are in the descriptions of the conditions. Claims are made about the causes and characteristics of conditions that have nothing to do with how they are diagnosed (like claiming dyslexics have better spatial awareness, or we know which part of the brain causes ADHD). Worse, is when bogus treatments are publicised, like changing the colour of paper or ink for those who can’t read.
  10. New marking policies. If your marking policy is so complicated people have to be trained in it, then it is too complicated. And I include in this (in fact I make a special effort to include this) those policies that are introduced that will “save everyone time”. They won’t. Set a minimum standard. Don’t expect everyone to be able to keep to it.

I realise that this is, no doubt, terribly negative. But it shouldn’t be difficult to get INSET right. Just do the following:

  • Give teachers plenty of time for their own preparation during the day. Preparation is training.
  • Let departments have time to help those with deficits in subject knowledge.
  • Make some things optional.
  • Concentrate on essential information.
  • Make sure any training on how to teach is evidence-based and relevant to your school.

and most of all

  • Don’t make anybody sit through something you wouldn’t sit through.
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The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)

August 29, 2014

Those who work in schools seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves questions like:

  • Why do Mrs Jones’s classes always behave well?
  • Why are students worst behaved in the afternoon?
  • Why does Ryan get into trouble in geography and not in maths?
  • Why is behaviour worse on rainy days?
  • Why does no child do what I ask without the threat of a detention?
  • Why is Tammy-Lee so polite and pleasant one-to-one but awful in  lessons?
  • Why do students act as if it is a surprise that I punished their poor behaviour?

The answers a lot of the worst school managers like to give to these sorts of questions tend to involve two bad assumptions. Firstly, that students are like automata, they respond automatically to certain input (rain, being shouted at, having to work hard) and what follows is an unavoidable reaction to a specific situation not a deliberate choice influenced by the consequences of previous such choices. Secondly, that the input students get from their teachers is far more important than the input they get from their peers.

I was reminded of this by some of the discussion following my last post. Probably the most controversial part of it was my disdain for schools in which teachers have to run their own detentions. I should probably say that I don’t mind if teachers ask students to stay in for 5 minutes at lunch, break or after school to talk to them, or hear their apology, but I do have a problem with expecting teachers to set and run half hour (or more) detentions. The usual justification for what seems like an unproductive use of time is that it can (in some way) be used to discuss what happened and repair the relationship between  student and teacher. Where these justifications have been made the assumptions I described above have usually come into play. Firstly, it is assumed the student behaved as they did in reaction to a particular situation, and the specific situation has to be addressed rather than the principle that the student should behave in all situations. Secondly, it is assumed that the teacher, and their relationship with the student, is the key to what happened and the student cannot have been set off by factors unrelated to which teacher was present. It is because I think these assumptions are based on an inaccurate model of how students behave that I don’t think detentions set by individual teachers can be the basis of a discipline system.

What is being missed, with regard to the level at which detentions are organised and by anyone asking the questions above, is that students rarely act independently of their peers when they misbehave. Most poor behaviour stems from interaction between students and shared expectations held by students. Students coordinate their behaviour. They behave badly when their peers behave badly. They behave badly when their peers expect them to behave badly. They behave badly when it will increase their standing with their peers. They behave badly when their peer group thinks they will get away with it, or when they think they should get away with it. Behaviour incidents do not happen uniformly across the school. They cluster. Certain lessons, certain teachers, certain times of the day, certain times of the year or certain combinations of students will prompt more bad behaviour than others. Kids work together when they misbehave. Sometimes they test the boundaries together, at other times they convince themselves that the boundaries should never have existed and that any attempt to impose discipline is unfair. One student’s behaviour or attitude will set off others. That is why seemingly insignificant things, like the weather, can result in large amounts of bad behaviour, because it only takes a small change to prompt major problems. That is why some departments have more problems than others. That is why some year groups are worse than others even when comparing their entire time at the school. That is why some teachers get targeted and others see little poor behaviour. That is why management being seen to be unsupportive over one incident can sabotage a teacher with every class they have.

If the approach to discipline is piece-meal and ad hoc then you are more likely to move poor behaviour around rather than reduce it. If you try to devolve all behaviour management to the lowest possible level, the teacher, behaviour will start breaking down in some classes. The clustering effect means that some teachers will have to deal with more poor behaviour than others, making consistency with setting detentions or calling parents impossible. Good managers ensure those teachers don’t have to manage the detentions or call parents themselves and say, “You are doing the right thing, keep following the behaviour policy and they’ll eventually get the message” while also helping to confront the students. Bad managers assume that the teacher must have done something wrong and start trying to change the teacher, often by getting them to lower expectations. They’ll even assume that getting involved directly to improve expectations will undermine the teacher.

It is true that teachers can make a difference to which teachers get the worst behaviour, but this can happen in good or bad ways. Good classroom management and following up incidents thoroughly can help deter bad behaviour, but so can appeasing ringleaders and making lessons less demanding. If teachers are working to make sure they are not the one that gets the hassle, rather than ensuring that nobody gets the hassle, the school as a whole will not have great discipline. Students will change who they target so individual teachers may feel they are making progress, but they will still act up somewhere. Perhaps for new teachers; perhaps for those that simply don’t have time to set enough detentions; perhaps for certain subjects; perhaps for those that SMT have failed to support. I have seen schools go into an academic nosedive when it becomes the teachers that make kids work hard who get the worst hassle. It’s not that teachers can make no difference to behaviour in their own classroom; it’s that the biggest factor in behaviour is student expectations and these can be set outside the classroom.

The best behaviour management is about setting universal expectations in a school. It is about creating a situation where every student sees their peers behaving. Some of the biggest mistakes in behaviour management involve digging too deeply into the reasons individual students behave or misbehave. People start imagining that if a student behaves only out of fear of sanctions then it is a bad thing, or that if they behave in lessons where they like the teacher then every teacher should try to win them over. However, in my experience, most poor behaviour has something to do with the expectations of the peer group. There’s no point asking “well why did this student misbehave today?” when the reasons are sitting all around them. Most students behave in the way they think is normal, for somebody of their status, according to the values they have arrived at in collaboration with their peers. Discipline systems that work on a whole school level have a much better chance of changing what is normal across the school than leaving every teacher to compete to be seen by kids as one of the teachers for whom behaving is normal. It also gets the best out of teachers if they know there is a standard to maintain, rather than an ordeal to be avoided. No headteacher should want teachers to be asking before a lesson, “What can I do for a quiet life?” rather than “How can I get my class to learn a lot?” but this is what happens where the workload for dealing with behaviour, and the responsibility for setting expectations, falls mainly on the classroom teacher.

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Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System

August 27, 2014

Last time I talked about what made a school discipline work. I was glad to see a really positive response from a number of headteachers and SMT members about the post, there were really only one or two disappointing ones. A few years back any suggestion that discipline was a management responsibility rather than about classroom relationships was highly controversial. It does feel like there are now just too many schools that have become effective on the back of sorting out discipline properly for that kind of denial to continue to be widespread, particularly among those members of SMT who are active on social media and can be challenged by hundreds if they make the types of excuses for poor discipline that we still often hear in schools such as: “kids like these cannot be expected to listen quietly” or “if lessons were engaging there wouldn’t be any discipline problems”. However, it is not so long ago that a committee of heads (and a few other establishment figures) were asked to look into behaviour in schools and produced a report concluding that there was nothing much wrong, and I do think that this has a lot to do with the idea I mentioned in my last post of a school with “good enough” discipline.

A school with “good enough” discipline is a school where it is possible for those in authority and those who are well-established to have no real difficulties with discipline, particularly in lessons. It is one where OFSTED is more than likely to say behaviour is “good” on the basis of how students behaved for the day and a half when they visited the school. It may even be that less established teachers who have low expectations of effort or concentration may also thrive, never really needing to confront behaviour. However, at the same time, it is a school where a certain proportion of staff are going to faces classes which do not expect to work or learn. The most obvious people in these categories will be new staff and supply staff. But it might also be teachers who are newer to the school, or younger teachers. In some schools it may be teachers of particular subjects. Or it may be teachers who are singled out for their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Sometimes it may just be teachers who have got on the wrong side of a particular ringleader or clique among the students. In the worst cases it may be those who have been undermined by SMT, as if one student is let off for treating you terribly, others will usually try. Tom Bennett refers to this situation as the “two schools“, the one with the good behaviour inhabited by the powerful and the lucky, and the one with the poor behaviour inhabited by the marginalised and the unlucky. I think of it as the “good enough” school. It tends neither to be a school with a really challenging intake (they would collapse into anarchy without a decent discipline system) nor a school whose intake have really high expectations (they can implement even quite complex discipline systems without too much effort) but one that is somewhere in the middle. It is one where there are enough challenging students to terrorise some staff, but not so many that those who are powerful or influential within the school cannot protect themselves from the worst of it and consider behaviour to be “good enough”. There is neither too much risk of immediate disaster, nor ambition to stand out for being excellent.

The basic feature of the school with “good enough” discipline is seen in the direction of travel of the workload relating to behaviour. Responsibility is always pushed downwards to those who are less senior and have less power. If you want to spot the signs of a “good enough” school discipline system, you are best looking to see if most, but not necessarily all, of the following apply:

1) The headteacher (and other SMT members) would not consider discipline their top priority. It would probably not be in the top three. They simply don’t seem to be part of the system either in terms of leadership (telling staff what is expected of them) or management (actually making sure things happen). In schools with decent discipline systems, even those with a very well-behaved intake, SMT are really keen on telling staff to enforce the rules and to raise their expectations. They feel that if there is a classroom in the school where the teacher cannot or will not enforce the rules then it is a problem for everybody and they will exhort teachers to punish more, ask for support and to refer incidents upwards. Managers also have a very clear role in the discipline system dealing directly with the worst offenders and a strong presence around the school site

2) There are two discipline systems. I wrote about this here. Reflecting the “two schools” there is a paper discipline system that will be shown to governors and inspectors that seems very thorough and supportive and there is what staff are actually expected to do, which will often involving lowering expectations and leaving struggling colleagues to sink. Often discipline is very informal, and sanctions are highly arbitrary. Students know that what they do is less important than who they do it to. Teachers who follow the letter of the system are seen as “inflexible” and lacking in behaviour management skills. If you could end up being complained about, or told off by managers, for following the behaviour system then you are most likely to be in a school with “good enough” discipline.

3) Departments have a major responsibility in the discipline system. The capacity of school departments to deal with behaviour varies massively. They differ in size; they differ in experience; they differ in available time. One department might consist of two part-timers, another might consist mainly of full-time staff who have been at the school for two decades.  One department might include two members of SMT and three year heads, another might be mainly NQTs. One department might teach every child in the school, another might mainly have sixth-formers. No school can ever hope to have a consistent discipline system if departments are heavily involved. Even delegating too much to year heads can create inconsistency, but at least year heads have a clear jurisdiction. Detention systems run by departments struggle because the same student can be in detentions in more than one department. Systems of removing students based on departments can be worse than useless if everyone is teaching at once, or you have multiple challenging classes in the department at the same time.

4) Teachers have to administer most sanctions themselves. What goes for inconsistency between departments is multiplied many times for teachers. Leaving it to teachers to supervise their own detentions, or call parents, guarantees that some staff will be unable to comply with the system. Schools might have a policy where you put every student who doesn’t do their homework in detention, but it is not a serious policy if in the first week of term a teacher finds that they have fifty students who haven’t done their homework. Asking teachers who have suffered verbal abuse or physical assault to call parents is idiotic, it just makes the whole experience even more stressful. Even the most dedicated staff will have to limit themselves to enforcing only those rules that they know they can enforce without running out of time in the week.

5) Inadequate sanctions. There are certain policies that will never work. I can give multiple examples but here I will mention a few of the most obvious ones. One is a policy of “telling them to put it away” in response to use of mobile phones in lessons. It has to be at least a detention, where practical it should be confiscation of the phone as well, although that will need an effective behaviour system to enforce. Anything less will ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs and students will invariably have their phones to hand. Another place where sanctions are often inadequate are those for being sent out of the classroom. It has to be significantly more than a detention (particularly if detentions are hit and miss). The gains in terms of establishing a reputation and getting out of work from being removed from a lesson are such that a detention is not enough of a deterrent. Also, problems exist where the discipline system allows for multiple warnings without a punishment. There seem to be a remarkable amount of schools that have adopted systems in which punishments are administered on the third warning, that have also decided that every warning should be given only for prolonged and repeated misbehaviour rather than low level disruption. Warning systems work where behaviour management involves multiple students misbehaving and you need to ask them individually to comply. They do not work when a warning is considered a sanction rather than a sign that a sanction will be coming without immediate cooperation. They do not work where they simply make it harder for teachers to punish wilful and persistent misbehaviour.

6) The existence of “outlaws”. Outlaws are students who exist outside of the normal constraints of the discipline system. Some exist simply through how much of their behaviour is ignored because there is no capacity to deal with it. They will never attend the detentions that they have earned because there is nobody to chase them up or schedule them. They are the sort of student who owes forty detentions which are then written off when they attend just one. They have tested every system to the limit, have found the gaps, and now walk through them knowing precisely who to act up for, which days to be absent, and which detentions to run away from. The other sort of outlaws are those created directly by well-meaning intervention. Often on the SEN register, it has been decided that they cannot be held responsible for their actions and teachers are deterred or prevented from enforcing normal discipline with them. Any attempt to enforce normal classroom rules will result in protest, such as walking out or swearing at the teacher, and teachers will be blamed for having provoked them. These students already know their rights and privileges and will often tell you they have “anger management” in order to intimidate you before you ever try to enforce a rule.

7) Behaviour INSET is not about using the discipline system. If you want to have effective behaviour management then everyone needs to know exactly what they are meant to be doing and how the behaviour system works. It is not a good sign, then, if INSET on behaviour management is not aligned to that aim. While new teachers might need more training than that, it is never a good sign if whole school behaviour training is not about rules and sanctions. If managers hire somebody who will tell teachers that if they were just nicer to the kids, or made their lessons more engaging, then their problems will go away, then you can guarantee SMT has lost the plot on behaviour and are looking to ensure that those they are not supporting will blame themselves. The consultants who spread this message, some who actually make a living from this sort of nonsense, are no help at all and nothing would delight me more than seeing schools have the sense to put them out of business by concentrating on raising expectations not spreading blame.

Behaviour is about expectations. Students behave in the way they think is normal. Over time effective teachers (particularly in smaller schools) can raise those expectations. That is why, even in some of the worst schools, you will find veteran teachers who everybody behaves for. Sometimes a single department in a school manages the same thing and the students just know that is the subject they must behave in. But for a whole school to be effective then the expectations are part of a culture which has to be set across the board and consistency is what matters most. This is dependent on leadership setting a high standard, but also on well-managed systems that ensure everyone can easily maintain those standards even in the most trying circumstances. Judging by the reputations gained by those schools that collapse into chaos and those schools which crack discipline, most secondary teachers face schools with “good enough” discipline, where plenty of lessons are disrupted but there is enough order to protect key staff and to pull the wool over the eyes of inspectors. Though many schools seem to maintain this situation indefinitely, allowing this situation to continue risks spiralling into decline. Those schools that don’t settle for this, that push for better behaviour than the conventional wisdom accepts, and do so on principle rather than as a response to failure, usually become celebrated examples of high achievement.

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What Makes A School Discipline System Work?

August 24, 2014

Before I get into describing how school discipline systems work, a little explanation of where I’m coming from. There was a bit of discussion recently (for instance, here, although I admit that once again I may be blogging about a discussion on Twitter) about the Guardian Teacher Network’s Secret Teacher feature. While I sympathise with those who complained that it’s not always very good, I’m quite keen to defend both the principle of anonymity and the usefulness of saying negative things about the education system. I think that there are issues where things have moved on because teachers have spoken out anonymously. I think teachers who wouldn’t have spoken in public did a lot to change perceptions about the unfairness of OFSTED and the conduct of observations, as well as the extent of dumbing-down, gaming and cheating in exams, at a time when much of the education establishment claimed no problems existed. I think there are other issues such as workload, behaviour, teacher mental health and bullying or incompetent managers where little progress has been made but those writing anonymously are the best sources of information. I also think teachers criticising the education system prevent those with power in it from claiming that any criticism of it is an attack on teachers, which is still an old standby for those who want to dismiss legitimate concerns.

I think there is a further, and more relevant, point that describing how failures happen is often a greater source of insight than studying successes. For instance, I had a really positive response from so many managers to my How to be bad SMT post. It is also why I found it easy to comment on this post from Tom Sherrington in which he discussed his intention to get a whole school behaviour system in place and working. I have lots of experience of failing behaviour systems. So much so that when I passed on my advice and opinions in the comments, I realised that it was enough to fill a blogpost. My worst experiences (and a few positive ones) have taught me quite a bit about school discipline systems. It is remarkable how much failing behaviour systems in different schools have in common. Invariably responsibility for behaviour has been pushed down the chain, (serious incidents are dealt with by middle managers, detentions and contact with parents by individual teachers) with the worst schools having managers who see their responsibility as punishing those teachers who don’t cooperate with concealing the bad behaviour. The level at which sanctions are organised is key. If seeking to challenge behaviour creates hours of work for a teacher with little effect then they won’t use the system; often it is simply impossible. Where behaviour is good, it is usually the case that it is easy for a teacher to enforce the rules. Where behaviour is bad, it is usually the case that it is difficult for the teachers to enforce the rules. Where behaviour is terrible, managers are usually working to prevent teachers enforcing the rules. For a behaviour management system to work there has to be capacity to deal with everything that arises and only SMT have the power to create that capacity.

If it is agreed that there is to be a whole school detention system (something I generally favour unless behaviour is already very, very good) there are key things that will make a difference.

1) Capacity (both raw numbers and keeping those who attend in check). I have seen such systems fail because there were too many students in detention or because those who were supervising them had insufficient power or authority to do so effectively. Having an SMT member (supported by other teachers) all in the hall with kids sat in silence is the most efficient I’ve seen, but it requires a lot of effort to ensure it always happens and that disruption in detention is dealt with. The quickest way I’ve seen schools overload their behaviour system is to use it to enforce homework.

2) What happens when students don’t attend. I have seen such systems break down because in the event of non-attendance it was up to the class teacher to chase up and reset and there was no increased sanction. This is even worse if the class teachers are in charge of scheduling the detentions or if kids are used to arguing the toss over detentions. I’ve seen schools where it was well known that non-attendance at whole school detentions was the best strategy and teachers would rarely even know if detentions had been sat or not.

3) The response to escalation. The worst failures of whole school detention systems I’ve seen are ones where the schools did not deal adequately with serious incidents such as swearing at a teacher or walking out of lessons. Students came to realise that when faced with the prospect of a detention (for instance having got one or two warnings in a three warning system) it was safer to walk out of the classroom or swear at the teacher than to get a detention. A behaviour system is only as good as its response to the most serious incidents.

4) The response to system failure. These systems usually have teething troubles. Perhaps some perverse consequences; perhaps a loophole; perhaps somebody not doing their job, or most likely a bottleneck which means somebody somewhere suddenly has more work than they could possibly do. What happens when these problems occur is absolutely vital. If people try to deal with it by getting those below them to generate less work (i.e. set less detentions, enforce fewer rules), or by losing the paperwork, then the system will fail. There has to be an understanding that problems can be referred upwards without blame. Broken behaviour systems usually break the moment somebody in the system will not support classroom teachers who are setting a lot of detentions or dealing with a lot of serious incidents either by telling them to stop confronting poor behaviour, or by not following through on that teacher’s paperwork.

It is fairly easy to get to a point where the behaviour system is “good enough”, i.e. where all SMT, HoDs and the most established teachers have enough support not to have to worry too much about behaviour. I think that is the equilibrium the average school ends up with: poor behaviour is endemic but not universal. It is far harder to get a school to the point where good behaviour is expected in every lesson and around the site. In fact, I think that’s why behaviour in schools is often so poor, because those with power settled for the “good enough” option, with the blame for the remaining poor behaviour being placed with those with least power to change it.

Anyway, I hope this is of use to some managers somewhere. Nothing makes a school ineffective like endemic behaviour issues, and I have never yet encountered a secondary school that sorted behaviour simply by nagging, or even training, classroom teachers. It’s always a whole school issue because expectations are contagious, and sensible managers will want their teachers to concentrate on teaching, not compensating for the low expectations students had when they arrived at their classroom.

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That Primary School Teacher Post

August 9, 2014

There were lots of comments on twitter about that post yesterday from a new primary school teacher. I thought it was genuine and worth sharing because:

  • The ideology described was consistent with what I had been describing in my previous post;
  • The ideology criticised was consistent with so much of what I’ve seen expressed on primary school teachers’ blogs;
  • It was consistent with what I have heard from plenty of others who have gone into primary teaching, particularly the academically able;
  • The effects of the ideology are very consistent with what I see as a teacher of year 7;
  • It is consistent with what we know about academic attainment in basic skills, not just in year 7 but throughout the population, i.e. they have declined over time as the teaching methods have gor more progressive;
  • I assumed that the many primary teachers doing a good job and opposing this ideology would either agree with the post or want it debated, rather than claim to be personally insulted at the suggestion that anyone ever disagreed or that everything wasn’t perfect.

I knew it would be controversial. As I said in my previous post, when it comes to early years there is a general hostility to questioning around methods. I also know from long experience that criticism of anything in the primary sector gets a far more hostile and personal reaction than criticism of anything in secondary. Criticise a fad in secondary or FE and everybody says “aren’t our managers idiots for forcing this on us?” Criticise a fad, or even the same fad, in primary and it’s like you just appeared on the News at Ten to declare that everyone in primary, staff and students alike, are completely shit and should be put down. Despite a number of brilliant exceptions among primary bloggers, there just doesn’t seem to be the same capacity for debate as in secondary or FE.

Some of the response was predictable. It was part of a fairly heated debate and was originally in the comments, so, of course, any passing member of the “tone police” could complain about the style of writing. Inevitably there were those who, having seen that I’d recently asked for evidence for some bold and apparently technical claims about the psychology of child development, thought it must, therefore, be appropriate to ignore context and ask for evidence for personal experience and opinion. And, of course, people were all too willing to interpret any general claim to be about what was universal rather than what was normal. But apart from these obvious time wasters, I was actually surprised at a lot of the other comments. There were a lot of attempts by primary teachers to claim nobody among their number held the opinions that were criticised in the post (what a relief) but these seemed to be arriving in my twitter timeline alongside those primary teachers who were claiming that nobody in primary education (other than the author) disagreed with the opinions criticised in the post. Simultaneously, I was seeing two arguments that appeared to refute each other. Additionally, there were people who simply seemed unaware that any of the debate from the last few years has happened. Some defended the criticised position on the basis of learning styles (although the worst offender later found reasons to delete her tweets). Others defended it on the grounds that discovery learning works well. One person even tweeted me this: 

Also surprising to me were some of the ad hominems. In particular:

  • It probably isn’t a primary teacher who wrote it (alongside claims it’s a wind up and declarations of disbelief and shock to be reading such views);
  • They show a lack of understanding, particularly of play, development, learning etc. (said several times over and it was also claimed they cannot be educated or that they needed to be trained);
  • “I hope this teacher never teaches my kids”;
  • It’s depressing or bad they want to be a teacher;
  • If they cared they’d come and visit us (really appealing when said to somebody saying something controversial anonymously);
  • They are attacking the professionalism of other teachers including those who say they don’t use the methods criticised;
  • The author is projecting their own problems onto the system.

I wasn’t so much surprised that ad hominem attacks were made. I was surprised how familiar they were. Look at the comments on my blog (and other blogs) from when I started and you will see pretty much all of them. This is exactly how I used to be dismissed. Of course, as time went on and lots of other tweeters and bloggers appeared expressing similar opinions, and it became obvious I had a significant following, this sort of attack has become rarer and rarer. It was a way to stop the debate and it didn’t work. I don’t think it’s going to work here either. Of course, the author might have had a bad experience but they haven’t had a rare experience. Of course, there are other views about pedagogy, but isn’t it time they were defended on the basis of evidence and reason not by demonising those who oppose them?

Oh, and just one more point, it was remarkable how many people assumed the author of the post was a man (and the only exception that really stood out was a male primary teacher). Any suggestion as to what that signifies? It could be stereotypes about former accountants, or it could tell us something about the sexual politics of primary teaching. Your opinions on this would be appreciated.

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