Could Fad CPD Harm Your School?

July 29, 2020

A difficult question for any school leader is how best to use the time allocated for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) with some schools conspicuously getting it wrong and no easy answers as to who gets it right. One tendency that I have noticed, which I consider to be a mistake, is to ignore the context of one’s school and the needs of one’s own staff, in favour of what is currently fashionable. Sometimes this is just responding to the ideological climate of the moment, but at other times schools can respond to some gimmick that will soon be forgotten about, or something that has just been in the news.

All CPD runs the risk that, even if it seems fine on the day to the people in charge, it might make no difference in the longer term. There is also the ongoing problem of CPD that passes on false information (like learning styles or the predictive power of attachment theory) and bad practices (like Brain Gym or discovery learning). These difficulties are compounded when CPD is based on the latest fad. There simply may not have been time to evaluate the ideas or the effects of the training. At least with something well-established, you can ask prior recipients of the training if it was helpful; with the next big thing in CPD you might turn out to be the school that discovers its effects are unarguably harmful.

There are two current fads I am hearing lots about at the moment that I think are both partially based on myths and also potentially harmful.

1) Mental health training based on pandemic trauma.

There has been an overwhelming amount of nonsense about a mental health crisis in schools following the pandemic. For instance, this article in Schools Week claimed “child development experts are predicting a ‘national disaster’ as lockdown threatens to create a generation with mental health problems.”

Why might the ideas be false?

We have good reason to be sceptical of those claiming that lockdown has traumatised children. There was already a mental health fad in education, and a trauma fad. During the pandemic a number of people I had previously associated with the idea that schooling caused children to be mentally ill, began arguing that lack of schooling would cause children to be mentally ill. Anyone making claims about the psychological effects of lockdown based on attachment theory, developmental psychology or anything else with no proven record of predicting the prevalence of mental health problems in the real world can be assumed to be a charlatan. Psychiatric epidemiology – the study of the causes of mental disorders in society – is an academic discipline not a hobby. While the mental health of some children may have been harmed by bereavement; being confined to a home that was already a psychologically unhealthy environment, or reduced support for existing mental health conditions, there is good reason to be sceptical of any claims about a Covid mental health crisis.

Why might the training be harmful?

I don’t want to overstate the risks here, as far I know nobody has good evidence that even the most extreme and alarmist talk about mental health in a school causes harm. However, we can’t rule out that children’s mental health could be affected by their perception of mental health disorders in their school. We know that suicides can cluster in a community; that there is an ongoing debate about emotional contagion, and there are studies suggesting that there is some level of peer contagion for depressed states. There is also the Nocebo effect: evidence that telling people that they will be harmed by something, causes them to experience harm. Additionally, even among psychiatrists, there is concern about fad diagnoses. Perhaps worst of all, if teachers and students are told it is normal to have suffered mental health difficulties as a result of lockdown, it might cause teachers to see warning signs of mental illness as “normal” and students with genuine mental health symptoms to think that everyone has them and they are not a reason to seek help.

None of these concerns are a reason not to want staff to be aware of potential mental health problems among students, but it is a reason why we shouldn’t just assume that misinformation and panic about mental health is harmless and that if your intentions are good you won’t make things worse. .

What’s the alternative?

School leaders should be aware that schools already contains experts in looking after children. They already have access to training in safeguarding that includes dealing with mental health. The best option is to avoid assuming any radical discontinuity in children’s mental health before and after lockdown, until there is good evidence for it. School leaders should make use of their existing expertise, and their knowledge of their students and their community. They shouldn’t be asking outsiders to tell them how to react to problems that might not even exist in their school. And, of course, there are good practices such as keeping schools safe, supportive and free from bullying, that will always be best for mental health.

2) Racism training based on unconscious bias.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests there seemed to be a rush by some school leaders to abandon all critical thinking regarding racism in society and its causes. A particular focus, perhaps because of its potential for replacing meaningful action with gestures and opportunities to judge one’s peers, has been on the idea that unconscious attitudes are a significant cause of discrimination and unfairness.

Why might the ideas be false? 

There are two main sources of evidence that I have seen presented to educators as evidence of the power of unconscious bias. The first is from research involving the Implicit-Association Test (IAT), a psychological assessment that is meant to uncover one’s hidden prejudices. The IAT has now been established to be neither a reliable test nor a valid predictor of anyone’s actual behaviour, but is apparently still common among corporate diversity trainers*. The second source of evidence for unconscious bias I have seen in education debates is less specific, but more open to interpretation. Any and all evidence of racism in society, particularly in outwardly progressive organisations, is presented as evidence of unconscious bias. This cannot ever be ruled out, however, it cannot be assumed. Anyone who sees evidence of prejudice, for instance in how often people are offered job interviews, might be seeing the results of unconscious bias. However, this is only one explanation among several. There may be conscious prejudice, unless you happen to believe that deliberate racism no longer exists. There may be institutional racism, with rules and procedures that lead to racist outcomes. There may be discrimination based on ignorance and misconceptions which, while unintentional, is still very much a matter of conscious beliefs and actions that could be challenged.

Why might the training be harmful?

If discrimination is happening for any of the reasons I just mentioned (conscious racism, institutional racism, ignorance) then blaming it on unconscious bias will make it harder to prevent. Any institution wanting to perpetuate a racist status quo will find a belief in unconscious bias a convenient excuse for taking no action to identify actual racists, reform discriminatory practices, or identifying where false beliefs about race are leading to discrimination.

Even if it was not a potential distraction from dealing with actual problems, there is also a possibility that the worst anti-racism training might be harmful in its own right (and this goes beyond just training based on unconscious bias). There is evidence that some types of training might have “ironic effects” and that some efforts to address stereotypes might reinforce them. As with mental health training, one should not assume that because one has good intentions, one isn’t making the problem worse. A further complication, that this blogpost discusses, is whether some ideas about race may be so heavily politicised that, if brought into schools and passed on to students, they could conflict with the legal duty to be non-partisan.

What’s the alternative?

Despite theories of “white supremacy” that are intended to explain everything from slavery to the colour of sticking plasters, my experience of teaching in a variety of schools is that actual racism manifests itself in different ways in different schools. There is no single explanatory theory of racism in society that covers every problem and 99% of the time it seems that if somebody suggests such a theory it describes the United States more closely than it does England.  Forget looking for racism in unconscious minds, you should be finding out about racism in your school right now. Is there racist bullying among students? Is there discrimination in pay and progression? Is there anyone, staff or student, who feels less safe and less valued in your school because of their race? Is there an expectation that some ethnic groups cannot be expected to behave or learn? School leaders should know of the problems in their own schools. They should be making sure there is zero tolerance of racism and zero opportunity for racism to spread, even if that means punishments and exclusions for kids and disciplinary action and dismissal for staff. They shouldn’t be asking outsiders to tell them how to react to problems that might not even exist in their school.

Perhaps the allure of fad CPD is something to do with the widespread belief that schools are there to solve society’s problems rather than to educate. It might be that this makes it almost addictive to look for the latest analysis of social problems and the latest ways to address them. But if the CPD needs of a schools are assessed by looking at what’s in a newspaper or being discussed on Twitter, then who is actually addressing the problems and challenges that already exist in that school?

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Two Podcasts Featuring Me

June 19, 2020

I was interviewed for a couple of podcasts last week.

You can find the relevant episode of Greg Ashman’s Filling The Pail podcast here.

You can find the relevant episode of Naylor’s Natter in association with TDT podcast here.


Achievement For All is bad for kids

June 9, 2020

I’m not a huge fan of the Education Endowment Fund, partly because they’ve allowed some pretty shoddy research in the past, and partly because they have a history of being partisan on certain issues. However, they do fund RCTs that test certain education initiatives and, at the very least, that should enable them to spot some popular initiatives that have no effect or even a negative effect.

The latest emperor with no clothes is Achievement For All, which according to the EEF website

 …is a whole-school improvement programme that aims to improve the academic and social outcomes of primary school pupils. Trained Achievement for All coaches deliver a bespoke two-year programme to schools through monthly coaching sessions which focus on leadership, learning, parental engagement and wider outcomes, in addition to focusing on improving outcomes for a target group of children (which largely consists of the lowest 20% of attainers). The programme has cumulatively reached over 4,000 English schools.

Their evaluation of the programme found that:

In this trial, Achievement for All resulted in negative impacts on academic outcomes for pupils, who received the programme during five terms of Years 5 and 6 (ages 9-11). Children in the treatment schools made 2 months’ less progress in Key Stage 2 reading and maths, compared to children in control schools, in which usual practice continued. The same negative impact was found for children eligible for free school meals. Target children (those children the intervention specifically aimed to support) also made 2 months’ less progress in reading, and 3 months’ less progress in maths. The co-primary outcome finding (whole-group reading, and target children reading) had a very high security rating, 5 out of 5 on the EEF padlock scale.

Given the size of the effects and the consistency of negative findings, these results are noteworthy. Of particular importance is the impact that the programme had on target children, and children eligible for free school meals.

A report in Schools Week filled in some details.

The findings rank AfA as the joint worst-performing of more than 100 projects reviewed by EEF since 2011, with only three other projects earning an impact rating of negative two months.

Of these it is the only one to have the highest possible evidence strength of five – which indicates EEF “have very high confidence in its findings”.

They also reported the laughable response of the founder of AfA, Professor Sonia Blandford:

Blandford pointed out that disadvantaged pupils within the AfA trial schools still “achieved above national expectations, which was our key aim in the intervention”.

She added “it was an error to agree to a trial that attempted to evaluate the effectiveness of our broad and yet bespoke approach through the narrow lens of two school improvement parameters”.

Does this matter? I think it does. Since it started in 2011, it’s entirely possible that 4000 schools have harmed their students’ learning or at least wasted resources on something that is more likely to be harmful than helpful. And it’s worth asking how. Probably the single biggest reason this disaster lasted for so long is because the DfE endorsed it with a report assessing its positive effects on SEN children with data collected through:

  • teacher surveys
  • academic sources
  • interviews with strategic people
  • longitudinal case studies of 20 AfA schools
  • mini case studies of 100 pupils and their families
  • AfA events

In other words, the kind of “research” that costs money but nobody can reasonably believe is a fair way to evaluate an initiative of this kind. So the first thing we can learn from this is that the DfE should not be endorsing projects in this way. Particularly when the chances are some teachers, like Mrs S below, could have given a more accurate evaluation.

But another point, is the extent to which the people who run organisations like this become a vested interest, eagerly telling politicians and the public that schools are getting it wrong. There is a huge amount of expertise in the system in teachers and school leaders. Yet, it is staggering how often the AfA’s Professor Blandford was a voice in important debates. I have particularly noticed how such people, whose position means they don’t have to deal with the consequences of dangerous and out of control schools, seem to dominate the debate on exclusions. Professor Blandford was a particularly loud voice on this issue:

Calling for fewer exclusions in response to the Timpson Review.

In the TES claiming schools could do without exclusions

Talking on exclusions at Kinsgston University

Addressing LA conferences on reducing exclusions

Any one of these would have been far better used as an opportunity for a successful school leader to explain why exclusions are necessary. But our education system as a whole promotes the voices of “experts” whose ideas don’t work over the voices of practitioners with a proven track record.

And I won’t ever forget, as I reported here, back in the days when the Chartered College Of Teaching was still pretending it was going to be teacher led, Professor Blandford was one of the first non-teachers to be given a leadership role that, if promises had been kept, would have gone to a teacher.

I’ve always defended the right of non-teachers to help and advise schools, but we need a system where schools look first to a) practitioner expertise and b) what has been proven to work. Not a system where it’s only after 4000 schools and 9 years that we actually realise that we’ve been listening to the wrong people.


Rules and exceptions

May 26, 2020

The weekend’s news was dominated by the story of the prime minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and his long trip to Durham during lockdown which he justified, at least partially, in the following way:

The rules make clear that when dealing with small children that can be exceptional circumstances and I think that was exceptional circumstances.

I suspect I’m in the majority in not considering this an acceptable interpretation of the rules. However, given that I don’t feel any particular prior animosity to Cummings, and given that I could easily imagine other exceptional circumstances that I would have thought made his actions acceptable, I find myself considering precisely what the problem is.

This also led me back to many debates about rules in schools where the topic of exceptions have come up. To hear some people talk about the evils of “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” behaviour policies you could be forgiven for thinking that there were schools that make no exception to the rules at all. It is more common than it should be to hear people, usually not working in schools, claim that a rule against letting kids out to the loo means kids soiling themselves, and a rule against letting kids out of the room every time they say they feel sick means that it is normal for kids to sit in class vomiting into a bucket. I don’t think these claims describe any schools at all. I think, if anything, there is far more of a constituency of people involved in education who always make exceptions and will justify almost any rule-breaking as something a child couldn’t help doing. I could probably rant for hours about the most ridiculous excuses for breaking rules I’ve heard from both kids, and, depressingly, from the kind of adult who believes children should be freed from adult authority.

So how do we distinguish between valid and invalid exceptions to rules?

Here are some considerations.

1) Does the exception make the rule pointless?

If making a particular exception to a rule renders the entire rule pointless then it’s not a valid exception. This might seem obvious, but schools often have rules that are rendered pointless by the exceptions. If your break duty is to keep kids out of a school building unless they have a reason to be inside, you may quickly discover that the only kids who don’t have a reason to be inside are those who didn’t realise they weren’t supposed to be in the building.

Giving endless chances before any sanction is given can mean that a rule of “don’t do X” quickly becomes “do X as much as you like, until a teacher tells you to stop”. Not confronting a child’s behaviour because they will respond badly to being confronted, can mean that rules are essentially guidelines to be followed by choice.

2) Is the exception actually exceptional?

Related to the last point, the sheer number of exceptions can make a rule pointless. A rule of “nobody leaves the lesson” becomes pointless if there are exceptions for medical reasons that are self-reported. In one school I worked in I taught a large class where a quarter of the students had a medical reason to leave the classroom to go to the toilets signed by a member of staff. After I reported this to the head of year and he made it marginally harder to get permission without recent parental contact or in serious cases a medical note, this immediately fell to no students at all.

A lot of the debate over strict rules and special needs is in this category. There are people who use a wide variety of SEN as a reason a child should not have to obey rules or as a reason particular rules should not exist. Many people argue as if being labelled SEN alone was a reason not to obey rules, even though in some cohorts 44% of children (51% of boys) have been labelled as SEN at some point in their time at school. A particular concern is those who begin their claims with “Children with autism can’t…”. These claims are virtually never true, given the nature of autism and how different kids with autism are. A special need should always be special and an exception should always be exceptional.

3) Is the exception obvious and uncontroversial?

One thing that always amazes me about debates on strict rules, is how willing some people are to believe that schools will not make obvious exceptions. Strangely enough, schools that have a rule that students stand up when a member of staff enters the room, don’t actually punish a student in a wheelchair for not following it. Those schools that encourage eye contact when greeting a member of staff cannot be assumed to be attempting to force out those whose SEN might make that difficult. And those who claim that rules against shouting abuse are discriminatory against those with Tourette’s, not only don’t understand schools, they don’t understand Tourette’s either. It’s debatable how clearly school rules have to say “this rule doesn’t apply in exceptional circumstances” as I can only think of one case in my two decades of teaching where an obvious exception wasn’t made (and that was a member of support staff, not a teacher who refused to make it) but we could probably move the debate on behaviour on a lot if everyone could admit that obvious exceptions are made all the time, and the controversial bit is over when we stop making exceptions.

4) Were “non-routine decisions” thought through?

A child has a medical note saying they should be let out to use the toilet. They use it every Thursday afternoon, usually as soon as they are given written work.

A child is being investigated for autism. Their paperwork says clearly that they will not be able to cope with being shouted at and will walk out. They walk out one lesson when told firmly they need to get on with the work.

A child uses a homophobic term that is not common these days to address a friend and they are overheard by a member of staff. When they are told that it is homophobic, they are shocked (strangely enough they usually have to hear this from their friends rather than just their teacher) and it is clear that they did not intend to be homophobic and have agreed that what they said was unacceptable.

All these cases are ones where, at the very least, there is room to consider for a moment, whether the normal course of action is the appropriate one and/or whether some follow up action will be needed later. I almost used the term “tough calls” for this section, but actually I’m not sure all the situations described above are “tough” for the experienced teacher, they are just not the sort of routine judgement teachers make without thinking and forget about a second later.

It should be the case that a teacher making a non-routine decision has thought it through and can explain it. This may even require delaying the final decision or making a provisional decision “e.g. I believe this is against the rules, I will look into it before issuing the detention”. It should be the case that schools make situations that require that extra thought as rare as possible by making sure rules are clear and widely understood. This is why it matters if people involved in writing the rules start interpreting them in ways that are unexpected.

5) Were “debatable decisions” considered by the appropriate people and clear guidance given?

If a teacher, even after some thought, is still not 100% sure they are right in their decision, what their decision should be, or even if they are confident but they think a parent might contact the school asking for the justification for a decision, it’s best to speak to somebody else. Firstly, it makes it clear that the teacher is aware of the issue; they didn’t make a mistake, and then try to cover it up. Secondly, this might bring to light more information or even a better understanding of the rules that resolves the problem. Thirdly, it means that if, eventually, it is decided the decision is the wrong one, then they are not personally hung out to dry, it becomes the responsibility of the school to get it right. The other side of this is, if a teacher’s decision is decided to be wrong, they should be informed immediately and the reasons why explained clearly. I have left schools because it was normal for teacher’s decisions about sanctions to be overruled without the teacher being informed or where managers would deny responsibility for the things they made teachers do.

I hope these are useful considerations about rules and exceptions in schools. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether any of these points also apply to the case of Dominic Cummings.


Do schools permanently exclude too often?

March 15, 2020

There’s been a narrative seen in the media in the last few years suggesting that there is a problem with the level of permanent exclusions.

This strikes me as a typical example:

Particularly common is the suggestion that a head with a low level of exclusions has something to teach us (in this case we have every reason to disagree) and the idea that it is reasonable to comment on the level of exclusions without commenting on the level of unacceptable behaviour in schools. There are some things we can say about the level of exclusions without looking at behaviour. We have heard a lot about rising exclusions recently and you can easily find people complaining that something they personally dislike, like an academic curriculum or schools actually enforcing rules, is causing exclusions to increase. The latest figures show a general rise in permanent exclusions since 2012 when Michael Gove abolished the right to appeal, but this is a rise from a level which was already a historic low, and is still lower than 2006/7.

And if we look even further back, we see just how low permanent exclusions were before the rise.

The latest exclusion figures show that the number of permanent exclusions in the 21000 state schools 2017/18 was 7905. This is less than 1 in every 1000 pupils, i.e. 0.10%. The rate of permanent exclusions in primary schools was 0.03 per cent. The rate of permanent exclusions in secondary schools was 0.20 per cent. As well as having a much lower rate of exclusions, primary schools are smaller, so an individual primary school will exclude far less often than a secondary school. On average, a secondary school excludes 2 students a year, whereas, on average, a primary school will exclude a student once in a period of almost 14 years. Strangely this is overlooked by the anti-exclusion lobby, and we see some primary heads praised for avoiding exclusions as if it was an achievement, rather than normal for primaries.

The primary/secondary difference also largely explains statistics like this from the Guardian.

Overall, 85% of all mainstream schools did not expel a single child in 2016-7, while 47 individual secondary schools (0.2% of all schools) expelled more than 10 pupils in the same year.

We would expect the vast majority of schools to be primary schools expelling nobody in a given year, and permanent exclusions to be concentrated in secondary schools.

We also often hear claims that permanent exclusions are given for less serious misbehaviour. Often this is a result of confusing permanent and fixed term exclusions, but where it isn’t, it’s based on implausible and unverified anecdotes or on an interpretation of the way permanent exclusions are categorised.

Those who wish to reduce or prevent exclusions, point to the fact that the largest category “Persistent disruptive behaviour” is very vague, and, perhaps by focusing on the word “disruptive” rather than the word “persistent”, interpret it to cover less serious, or easily preventable, offences.

Examples of this:

The ambiguity here is not really cleared up by the guidance on exclusions, which specifies only that the category of “persistent disruptive behaviour” refers to:

• Challenging behaviour
• Disobedience
• Persistent violation of school rules

Like so much of the debate about exclusions, I find a real disconnect between my experience as a teacher which is that exclusions are infrequent and always for something that schools cannot tolerate without endangering children’s safety and learning, and claims like the above. In my experience, “persistent disruptive behaviour” is not less serious than the other reasons for exclusions, it is just more persistent. Children I’ve encountered who have been excluded for this are usually out of control, and often will have repeatedly committed the offences described in the supposedly more serious categories.

While there is some evidence, to be discussed in a later blogpost, that teachers do not think schools are too quick to exclude, we would struggle to find direct evidence of whether permanent exclusions are used sparingly and only for the most serious behaviour. However, what we can do is look at the scale of the worst behaviour in schools, and ask whether it can sufficiently account for the number of permanent exclusions that take place. Of course, it could be argued that schools are permanently excluding for trivial offences while tolerating extreme offences, but such a claim would, at the very least, be implausible enough to require very strong evidence. If the number of exclusions is low compared with the amount of extreme behaviour taking place, it is unlikely that schools are too quick to exclude, and if the behaviours in the “more serious” categories for exclusions are far more common than the exclusion figures would suggest, it is unlikely that the “less serious” categories such as “other” or “persistent disruptive behaviour” (which between the account for the majority of permanent exclusions) are being used for trivial offences.

These are the numbers of permanent exclusions, by type, from 2017/2018.

Permanent exclusions
Physical assault against a pupil 1,037
Physical assault against an adult 845
Verbal abuse/ threatening behaviour against a pupil 338
Verbal abuse/ threatening behaviour against an adult 652
Bullying 32
Racist abuse 13
Sexual misconduct 100
Drug and alcohol related 643
Damage 77
Theft 40
Persistent disruptive behaviour 2,686
Other 1,442
Total 7,905

Judging the level of bad behaviour in schools is hard to do accurately. Almost any source will be either an estimate or a partial picture. Fortunately, we don’t need to be very precise to see how low the above figures are. Teacher Tapp surveys teachers by using a large sample weighted to be representative. They asked teachers about their experience of physical and verbal abuse in the last year.

There are 453400 (Full Time Equivalent) teachers in state schools. This means the best estimate we have of teachers experiencing physical abuse from pupils in a year is 95000. The best estimate of teachers experiencing verbal abuse from pupils would be 249000. Both terms are defined by the respondents, and obviously any sample will not be perfect, but this is enough to give some idea of the gap between the permanent exclusion figures and the likely number of incidents serious enough for teachers to consider them to be verbal or physical abuse. Permanent exclusions for physical assault against an adult, and verbal abuse/threatening behaviour against an adult are 845 and 652 respectively for the last year on record, out of 7905 permanent exclusions in total. The mismatch between these figures and those derived from a representative sample of teachers, make a mockery of the idea that schools are quick to permanently exclude, and the idea that we can assume without evidence, or on the basis of vague categories, that permanent exclusions include lots of trivial offences.

Another source of evidence is that in recent years journalists have reported on Freedom of Information requests to police forces about crimes reported at schools. These figures are likely to be incomplete as not all police forces respond, and some will include crimes by adults in schools, and figures from Scotland and Wales. We can also assume that many incidents (I’d say from experience the vast majority of incidents) in schools that, technically, can be considered criminal are not reported to the police. However, if all we are looking for is whether permanent exclusions reflect the frequency of serious incidents in schools, it is worth noting how they compare with what incidents in schools are reported to the police.

Comparing these with the exclusion figures, we again get the clear impression that both the total number of exclusions, and the exclusions for the “most serious” offences (if one wishes to claim that the “persistent disruptive behaviour” and “other” categories are made up of less serious offences) are far lower than expected. We have a situation where the threshold for permanently excluding for a single offence appears higher than the threshold for reporting the single offence to the police as a crime.

The view that permanent exclusions are currently high, seems completely dependent on ignoring the realities of behaviour in schools. When you consider what teachers say they experience, and what is reported to the police, we should be asking why the rate of permanent exclusions is so low, and what can be done to make schools safer.




Behaviour is not all about relationships

March 1, 2020

It doesn’t take long in a discussion about behaviour for somebody who should know better to claim that the key to good behaviour is good relationships. It’s true that a bad relationship could undermine you with a class. It’s true that sometimes a good relationship with some of the dominant personalities will have a really positive effect on a class. It’s true that it’s better to have good relationships than bad with your students. However, we should not confuse cause and effect. It’s much easier to have a good relationship with a well behaved class. It’s easy to con yourself that the good behaviour you get from a class is because the class like you, but it’s far more likely that the class like you when your lessons are safe and orderly and you are not having to constantly tell them off. In my experience, if you visit schools with strict and effective behaviour management, you also see really good relationships between staff and students. This is because relationships thrive where staff and students are happy and flourishing, and that happens best where there are boundaries and students are safe. The opposite of this is the school where good behaviour occurs mainly when students have been “won over”; where strangers and new staff may be treated with contempt and life is hell for the teacher who isn’t liked.

Most of the teachers with the strongest relationships with students have earned them the right way: through firm discipline and commitment to their students’ well-being. In an environment where winning over students is a prerequisite for an absence of abuse and defiance, there will be some adults who have prioritised these relationships above establishing the right expectations. In tough schools I have encountered teachers who have “good relationships” who earned them by never confronting a student. I have sat observing in lessons where the teacher had the most friendly and respectful conversations with even the most difficult students, but never said a word as the students subjected each other to abuse and harassment. Appeasement is a key strategy to surviving in a school where behaviour is based on relationships; rather than relationships allowed to develop due to good behaviour. Because relationships are a two way street, and students can choose who they like, schools where good behaviour is conditional on relationships, shift power to those students who want it. Those students can make it clear to teachers: “If you want an easy life, don’t get in my way”. At best this just means a lowering of academic standards, but often it means the departure of adult authority from the classroom. While this may be empowering for the ringleaders, it leaves most children unprotected from the mob, as staff fear the bullies among the children as much as their peers do.

Another aspect of schools where only good relationships will prompt good behaviour, is the effect on new staff. Typically, it takes a long time to establish yourself. These schools are not a nice place to start teaching, and even experienced teachers will find themselves treated badly when they move schools. Students will have a perception of who they need to obey and who they don’t. Supply teachers will be driven out; new staff will frequently go under, and classes will boast of the teachers they reduced to tears. Worse still, students will learn to coordinate their disruption. New staff are the obvious target, but sometimes a particular part of the curriculum will become known as the one to disrupt. Sometimes staff will be targeted for their gender, sexuality or ethnicity. There are schools where good behaviour depends on good relationships, but you almost certainly won’t have that good relationship if you teach French; if you speak with an accent, or you happen to follow the wrong religion. 

Finally, let’s accept that teachers are all different. Some are more introverted than others. Some like football and crude jokes; others like opera and subtle wit. Not everybody likes small talk. The culture of having to win over students turns teachers into superficial people, more interested in playing to the crowd than imparting something profound. Halfway between a politician and a game show host, the teacher with the most winning personality may “succeed” despite poor subject knowledge and little skill at imparting knowledge. They may even have the tricks of the demagogue: knowing how to manipulate individuals and how to lead a mob. Any teacher who is introverted; any teacher who is on the autistic spectrum; any teacher who cares more about their subject than being liked, is not welcome in the school where good behaviour depends on relationships. And it’s worse still for the misfits among the students. Expectations vary rapidly between classrooms as boundaries shift according to relationships. There’s no chance to learn good habits and follow routines; every lesson will be about navigating the social relationships between the teacher and the class. Instead of learning the useful skill of cooperating with people you don’t like; instead students are encouraged only to learn where the class has tacitly decided the teacher is “fun” enough for them. You wouldn’t want to be an autistic child in a school where the only rule is, “Don’t get on the wrong side of the mob”. Ironically, SEND students are frequently used as an excuse to justify the fuzzy boundaries and relationships first approach to discipline. You don’t have to be a teacher for five minutes to see how often these are the kids who are failed most in these schools.  

Behaviour is not about relationships. Good relationships with your students are worth having whether it will help behaviour or not. Good relationships are, however, no substitute for an orderly and secure environment where every teacher, and every student, can flourish.


A Scottish Teacher writes…

February 9, 2020

After this post and the debate that followed it, I was contacted by a teacher based in Scotland who wanted to share their experience of what’s happening. 

Andrew Old recently posted a blog about Scotland and the much-hyped achievement of eliminating exclusions. For some, Scotland has been heralded as a bastion of social progress, inclusion and tackling poor behaviour; “look at Scotland!”, they cry, “we too can abolish exclusions!”. Bliss, apparently awaits, if only schools lost the power to exclude pupils.

The truth however, does not match the claims. It is correct that exclusions have dropped significantly, but this has not been achieved through tackling poor behaviour. Indeed, quite the reverse. Rather than listening to education consultants with books to flog, or spaces at courses to fill, it may be useful to actually ask teachers prepared to be critical – often those not seeking promotion – about what is going on in Scotland. Or even the pupils and parents of these children blighted by the bad behaviour that goes unchecked in Scottish schools.

For instance, last November, a senior pupil at my school threw a bottle filled with urine at a group of younger pupils. His sanction? Sent home for the rest of the day.

Another pupil, seemingly mature and well-behaved, put forward for a scholarship programme, sent an email to the organisation telling them to “Fuck off :)” when his application was rejected. His sanction? Nothing.

All high schools in Scotland have internal Behaviour Support departments. Pupils may be completely off timetable and complete all their learning in the facility. However, in many schools, this is a place pupils ‘run to’, if challenged in class. Indeed, many pupils are given a Timeout Pass’, giving them permission to leave your class at their own discretion to go to Behaviour Support. Needless to say, this is where they can curse, swear and be wrapped in cooing sounds, telling them it is okay.

We also ‘soft’ exclude. We will often send pupils home until we can arrange a meeting with a parent. Unfortunately, we can only arrange a meeting for the following week, or the week after. It doesn’t go on the books, but gets the school respite from the pupil.

Andrew missed one major area in his article which should be considered when discussing behaviour: attainment.

The Scottish exam structure changed in 2012 from Standard Grades, which were broken down into Credit (grades 1-2), the top level where pupils were likely to go up to Higher; General (grades 3-4), and Foundation (grades 5-6). Each level had an exam externally marked. Pupils were typically entered as ‘General-Credit’, or ‘Foundation-General’, giving each pupil a fall-back position. It was inclusive of all levels and pupils had to work up to the exam, meaning they must actually focus in class (to a greater or lesser degree).

Now things are very much different. We have qualifications called “Nationals” (a nebulous term, brought in during a certain political party being in power… But I digress…)

National 4 is the supposed replacement for General Level. There is NO exam. All internally marked units, where pupils can repeat assessments till they get the correct answer. As that National 4 is unit work, the threshold for “just passed” is shockingly low. Supposedly externally verified by the Scottish exam board, the SQA, these units are barely checked. How do I know? I am the Principal Verifier for one of the subjects and we checked two schools last year; each of these schools only had three pupils being presented. We don’t have the budget for verification duties.

Why does this impact behaviour and exclusions in any way? Well, the jump from National 4, with no exam and low threshold for passing units, to National 5 (the credit replacement), is huge. Many pupils don’t make it. The path of progression is broken and this demotivates many pupils that are “at-risk”; they begin to act-out in class and see the experience as a waste of time. However, schools in Scotland are held accountable for children till they are 18, even if they leave at 16. Progression Pathways are closely monitored.

So what do we do? We have started introducing all sorts of crazy qualifications “just to give pupils something to do”. Want to drop English in S5? Sure, here is National 4 Cake Craft! Don’t like maths anymore? Don’t push to National 5 then, do National 4 Sports Leader. We basically entertain the pupils to keep them in school. The qualifications no longer have the merit they once did. No employer or college takes these seriously anymore. The teachers know it; the parents know it and the pupils know it.

We are doing our pupils a huge disservice in Scotland and it makes me very, very upset.

Don’t look north for inspiration. We are currently ill, but I hope we recover in the future.


Has there been a behaviour miracle in Scotland?

January 25, 2020

They don’t do permanent exclusions in Scotland any more. Or rather, they have reduced it to a negligible amount. The figures for permanent exclusions are literally unbelievable.

2010-2011: 60

2012-2013: 21

2014-2015: 5

2016-2017: 5 (after correction, apparently they missed 4 of these on first publication).

2018-2019: 3

The figures are collected every 2 years, so I don’t know if in the years that aren’t counted they go up. But it is clear these have been slashed.

Now, if Scotland want to either tolerate bad behaviour, or exclude in a way that doesn’t show up in official figures, that’s up to them. Unfortunately, those who oppose permanent exclusions are using the changed statistics to claim that Scotland has changed not only the practise of exclusion, but the need to exclude. In a report about the director of education in Glasgow, the TES reports that:

Ms McKenna, … says this change has not come about because of some “fancy-nancy initiative”, but because decisions in schools – and in secondaries in particular – are now made in a more “child-centred way”.

In Glasgow, she says, teachers are encouraged to see all behaviour as communication and to take into account the context children are living in when deciding how to deal with pupil transgressions.


“We don’t have any fancy-nancy initiative where I can say, ‘There’s £1 million here that I spent on that and wow, look, it reduced exclusions.’ What we have done is we made the decision to work in a more child-centred way.

“The whole agenda in Scotland around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed practice has had a big impact. Teachers are much more knowledgeable now about the context of children’s lives and behaviour is no longer looked at in isolation.

“One of the biggest achievements in Glasgow is that teachers don’t see it as bad behaviour but as distressed behaviour. That all behaviour is communication is one of our big training focuses. Now they are seeing behaviour in a different light.”

This claim has been leapt upon by campaigners against discipline in English schools:

Now, Scotland may be doing some good things. There are reports that individual schools have their own PRUs, allowing students to be permanently removed which may have benefits (although if the only benefit is that it doesn’t appear in the figures that’s still a concern).

However, what do we make of claims that in Scotland the need to exclude, rather than the need to record it in the figures, has been changed, particularly through “trauma informed” methods? Unfortunately, nobody reports accurately on the amount of behaviour in a school system. We can’t make comparisons with England. We can’t expect Scottish teachers to be able to talk about behaviour openly. We can’t say how out of control Scottish schools are. Normally, we’d be stuck at this point when talking about changes in exclusion policy.

However, the Scottish exclusion levels are so low, that if they have reduced behaviour that requires permanent exclusion to the levels claimed, they would have achieved a “behaviour miracle”. If the figures are true it would be extremely hard to find anything worth permanently excluding for in Scottish school, and this we can check. We can easily find every reason to believe that bad behaviour still exists on a scale far greater than the figures show in the years 2014-2019. The following stories are all from the period where Scottish schools were permanently excluding less than half a dozen kids. I leave you to judge whether bad behaviour that merits a permanent exclusion has been cured by a Scottish approach that we should copy.

From BBC Scotland reporting on compensation pay outs to teachers in 2019:

Three teachers who were assaulted by pupils were awarded more than £100,000 compensation between them, according to Scotland’s largest teachers union.

The EIS says one of the victims received £55,000 after suffering serious injuries.

The figures were contained in the union’s annual roundup of compensation secured for its members….

…A total of £105,000 of compensation was split between three teachers who were assaulted by pupils in separate incidents:

  • A payout of £55,000 involved a case were a pupil had shouted obscenities towards a teacher then violently assaulted them. The teacher suffered serious injuries as a result
  • A teacher who was injured in an altercation with a pupil and suffered distress received £30,000 in compensation
  • And a teacher diagnosed with concussion who was signed off work received £20,000. A pupil had assaulted the teacher, pulled their hair and headbutted them repeatedly

From BBC Scotland reporting on compensation payouts in 2017:

Payouts for incidents of violence made up £76,877 of the £469,758 secured by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) for members over the past year.

In one case, a teacher was awarded £12,452 and had to undergo an operation after a pupil kicked their kneecap off…

…payments highlighted in the EIS figures include:

  • A teacher who received £45,000 for rib injuries after being punched and kicked by a pupil.
  • Another was given a payout of £17,125 after receiving a “flying kick” that left them with injuries to the lower back and hip…

From BBC Scotland reporting on the temporary exclusion figures in 2018:

The number of Scottish school exclusions or physical assaults involving weapons or improvised weapons has risen to a five-year high.

Figures for 2016/17 showed there were 311 instances of a pupil being excluded for using a weapon to assault another pupil or member of staff.

There were a further 428 incidents involving improvised weapons.

The Scottish government said it was working with schools and local authorities on anti-violence campaigns.

The Scottish Conservatives said the increase would “horrify” parents, and demonstrated a problem with discipline in classrooms.

The statistics, published by the Scottish government, are only gathered every two years.

The total of 739 is up on the 661 incidents recorded in 2014/15, and 710 in 2012/13.

Exclusions as a result of physical assaults involving no weapon were also up, with 4,635 instances in 2016/17, a rise from 3,990 and 4,371 in the previous years.

The figures also showed exclusions as a result of physical assaults on staff increased, up 23% from 1,588 in 2014/15 to 1,990 in 2016/17.

BBC Scotland reporting on weapons in the North East of Scotland in 2017:

More than 200 incidents of young people having weapons – more a quarter of which were in schools – were recorded in the north east of Scotland in the space of a year.

Police Scotland said 207 were recorded between April last year and March this year, with just over a third involving a blade.

A total of 55 involved schools.

The average age of the children in schools was 12 ,and 93% of them were boys.

Of the schools, 29 were in Aberdeen, 15 in Aberdeenshire and 11 in Moray.

Of the 55 school incidents, 19 were recorded as a crime resulting in the youth being charged…

… Last year, hundreds of secondary pupils across Aberdeen have been given anti-weapons lessons in the wake of the killing of schoolboy Bailey Gwynne.

Bailey, 16, was stabbed during a fight with a fellow pupil at Cults Academy.

The schoolboy’s killer is serving nine years for culpable homicide.

An independent review into the death of Bailey found his death was “potentially avoidable” if teachers had known his attacker carried a knife.

BBC news reporting in 2018 on attacks on support staff in schools in Edinburgh.

Support staff have been attacked or abused by pupils 2,478 times in Edinburgh during the last three years.

Calls have been made for staff to be given more support after 1,675 injuries were sustained in attacks since 2015.

During 2017/18, 738 incidents of support staff being attacked or abused by pupils were reported – including 512 assaults that resulted in injury.

Of these incidents, 532 were against support assistants, 43 against learning assistants and 10 behavioural teachers.

The number of incidents last school year have fallen from the 1,006 reported in 2016/17 including 645 violent attacks resulting in injury.

BBC in 2019:

A 12-year-old boy has been charged over an alleged sexual assault at a high school in Glasgow.

BBC Scotland understands the complainer is a teacher at the school and the boy was reported to police on 29 August.

BBC in 2018:

Teachers at a school in Edinburgh have been sent home without pay after refusing to teach pupils they claim are violent and abusive.

A union has accused the city council of “bullying and intimidating” staff at [school name], a school for children with additional support needs.

Eleven teachers have refused to give lessons to eight pupils following physical and verbal assaults.

The council said it was wrong for staff to pick and choose who to teach.

The teachers are members of the NASUWT union, which earlier this year balloted for industrial action short of a strike by refusing to teach or supervise eight pupils who they believe pose a risk to health, safety and welfare.

Violent attacks are understood to have included chairs and signs thrown at teachers, causing injuries with police called in on some occasions.

Herald On Sunday report on racism in schools from 2019:

A GROUP of school children have told how they experience harrowing racist abuse in Scotland’s schools as a new report calls for urgent action to tackle the problem.

Secondary school pupils told the Herald on Sunday they were called the “N” word, told to hang themselves from headscarves and ordered to “get back to the jungle” by fellow students.

One young black woman said her siblings wished they had white skin, saying “our skin colour only brings us trouble.”

They spoke out ahead of the publication of a new report, due to be launched at the Scottish Parliament next week, which highlights the views of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children in Scotland.

Commissioned by Intercultural Youth Scotland, researchers asked more than 100 secondary school children from across the country their views on racism, the school curriculum and whether they felt included among their white peers.

The Herald on Sunday has obtained exclusive access to the study conducted by EDI Scotland, which show more than half of pupils didn’t think their teachers knew how to handle racist incidents, didn’t feel comfortable reporting racism to their teachers, and didn’t recognise themselves in the types of issues they were learning about in the classroom.

The majority of pupils also said they didn’t think their school would “respond effectively to any concerns raised about racism or discrimination”.

No doubt I will be condemned for compiling this information. There is nothing the anti-discipline lobby hate more than the public knowing about what happens in schools. However, as a teacher in England, I can only say that the reason our exclusion rate is much higher than in Scotland is because we are willing to use permanent exclusions to try to prevent this sort of behaviour. I can’t claim we succeed and nobody can compare the two countries, but I see no reason to look to Scotland for inspiration.

One final point, knife crime has fallen in Scotland and a number of campaigners have claimed this is a result of reducing exclusions. I can’t prove it isn’t, but before anyone accepts this as fact I will point out that the sentences given for carrying a knife in Scotland increased substantially immediately prior to the reduction. We have to ask ourselves, particularly in light of the murder of a Scottish schoolboy in 2016, whether we think that the figures are down because of kids with knives being in school, or because of what was done about those convicted of knife crime.


Isolation Booths

January 2, 2020

I won’t name names, as people shouldn’t be pointed out for being misled, but a few days ago somebody I follow on Twitter who isn’t a teacher tweeted the following:

I had never heard of or seen an ‘isolation booth’ until they cropped up this year on Twitter. What the hell is going on in our schools that this is some kind of normal practice?

Like most people, I also hadn’t heard of isolation booths before the “Ban the Booths” campaign began in late 2018. I had repeatedly worked in schools that used “internal exclusion”, i.e. where students may be removed from their scheduled lessons to work in silence under adult supervisions. Some even referred to this as “isolation”. I think some even have had dividers between desks, like in this picture here, although perhaps not ones that go all the way to the ceiling or stick out so far. But none had ever referred to “isolation booths”.

I looked at the debate that happened at the time, and saw that it was a familiar selection of people who tend to be against punishing the badly behaved, calling for:

The regulation and reporting of all children isolated for more than half a day.

This policy was explicit in the letter template they encouraged people to send to MPs and in much of what I read. However, the rhetoric and propaganda did refer repeatedly to “booths” and there were claims, such as “In a recent FOI by the BBC of 600 schools a third had isolation booths” which indicated that no clear distinction was being made between internal exclusion rooms in general and “booths”.

There are obvious problems here. The practice that the campaigners are pushing to obstruct is internal exclusion which is common. The practice they claim to object to is “isolation booths” which is not something most of us have ever heard of before they started to campaign against it and is not clearly defined in most discussions. These should be two entirely separate issues but by mixing them up, people who have a long history of campaigning against discipline can push their agenda without making it explicit.

So what is an “isolation booth”? As far as I can tell it refers to a wide variety of structures designed to insulate against noise. So, for instance, Advanced Acoustics, advertises temporary soundproof booths, known as “isolation booths” among other soundproofing products and mentions studios, cinemas and listening rooms as potential uses, but also offers “office acoustic treatments” and mentions classrooms and sports halls in this context. Office furniture companies also offer isolation booths, for instance, for call centres:

This particular company offers products for schools. One type of booth (with lower dividers between desks) is sold as a “school isolation booth” although it would appear an identical product is sold as an “office isolation booth”. There is no suggestion that isolation booths for schools are for internal exclusion rooms (even though in some schools these rooms are called “isolation”) as opposed to say, school libraries or sixth form study areas. An isolation booth is just furniture, not in itself a punishment.

What we appear to have is people who object to punishing kids trying to demonise the use of internal exclusion, by calling it “booths” implying that internal exclusion facilities are extremely confined and austere and certain media outlets going along with this for the sake of a story. The graphics used in reporting about “booths” can be remarkably dishonest. For instance, the first image above appears in this cropped form on the Independent website:

Even the image used above to advertise call centre booths is used by the BBC to illustrate a story about internal exclusion.

Does it matter if people who are proposing to regulate internal exclusion keep talking about “booths”? It does if people in policy-making positions join in. We have seen MPs and the Children’s Commissioner back campaigns against “booths”. We need an end to talk of “booths”. Either school leaders have the right to internally exclude or they don’t. If you aren’t backing that right, any attempt to make the issue about the furniture, is just misleading.


Top rated posts in 2019

January 1, 2020

The following posts got the most views in 2019. Many of them weren’t actually written in 2019, so do check the date before reading.

  1. The silliest feedback from work scrutinies
  2. Definitions of Progressive and Traditionalist
  3. Why I’m leaving the NEU
  4. Year Zero
  5. Noise
  6. The Darkest Term: Teacher Stress and Depression
  7. How to Destroy NQTs
  8. Good Year Heads
  9. A Brief History of Education Part 2: The 1944 Education Act
  10. How To Find Out If Your Teacher Is Gay
  11. Tough questions about behaviour
  12. The Top Five Lies About Behaviour
  13. Seven Habits of Highly Defective Headteachers
  14. What happens when a school listens to campaigners against internal exclusion?
  15. The Worst Behaviour In School Corridors
  16. Academic and non-academic subjects
  17. More on School Chain Shaming
  18. The campaign against discipline
  19. School Chain Shaming
  20. More popular than “Ban The Booths”

Happy new year.

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