Tough questions about behaviour

June 29, 2019

I originally wrote most of this as a Twitter thread, but it’s long enough that it really deserves to be turned into a blog post. 

There have been recent news reports about a school that has staff striking due to the perceived threat of violence from their students. I won’t link to it as I’m not sure naming schools always helps (not that I condemn anyone for reporting this as news). But I do want to draw attention to the underlying issue of schools where staff and students do not feel safe.

The background to this is that, in my experience, any secondary school that makes sure rules are clear and followed at all times will be labelled “zero tolerance” and demonised. Any school that doesn’t have clear rules constantly enforced will have a certain amount of kids out of control for at least some of their school day. This is, I regret to say, normal in secondary schools as far as I can tell. It doesn’t mean that every teacher faces the same situation; most at least ensure senior staff have some power and the difference between, say, being a supply teacher and being an established member of staff can be extremely vast.

However, once the normal situation in a school is for some kids to be out of control for some of the time it really doesn’t take much for things to tip towards a greater level of anarchy.  The number of staff who are ignored by kids can suddenly increase from unfamiliar faces, to any member of staff who can’t count on the full support of managers. The type of out of control behaviour can also suddenly escalate, particularly when students become aware of incidents not being dealt with adequately. It doesn’t take much to reach a point where fairly extreme behaviour, whether that’s verbal abuse to staff; violence; sexual harassment or sexual assault, or even bringing in weapons and drugs becomes normal. That’s where some schools end up.

Because the response to out of control kids when they were just disrupting lessons or ignoring some staff or some rules, was to ignore it, or cover it up or blame the teachers, some schools end up taking the same approach to more serious behaviour. At such a point, schools become dangerous to staff and students. The biggest problem in the culture of secondary schools is that there are still incentives for schools to cover up, rather than deal with, endemic behaviour problems. People still talk about “too many exclusions” or “too many detentions” as if doing something about behaviour was more of a problem than the behaviour itself.

‏Schools need to be honest. How many of your students are “outlaws”, i.e. ones who largely do what they like knowing the schools systems will never effectively constrain them? How clear are the systems for dealing with defiance? How much incentive is there for staff to ignore some behaviour? There are schools where challenging behaviour would lead to having to giving up time to sit detentions, having a confrontation or, worst of all, being blamed for the behaviour. What would actually happen if a kid was doing something wrong in front of a member of staff who didn’t know who they are? How many pseudo-rules are there, i.e. rules that can explicitly be broken without any actual punishment?

The biggest question to ask about a school is this: who would have a harder time at your school, a new member of staff who enforced every rule according to the behaviour policy or a new member of staff who didn’t even know what the behaviour policy was?

Edited 29/6/2019

Since I wrote this, more has come to light about the school where staff are on strike. According to The Sun they used the “Pivotal Approach” to behaviour. This has been condemned in the past by my union, the NASUWT, and is named after the behaviour consultancy previously (although I believe not presently) run by the consultant I wrote about here.


  1. For some kids, they like a handshake, they might be turned around by a conversation.
    However… it all ends badly if school leadership doesn’t get their hands dirty, and actually lead.
    Mostly they sit in their office making pronouncements. And nothing is ever their fault or problem, it’s all down to bad teaching.

  2. “Because the response to out of control kids (SIC) when they were JUST DISRUPTING lessons or IGNORING SOME staff or SOME rules, was to ignore it, or cover it up or blame the teachers, some schools end up taking the same approach to more serious behaviour. At such a point, schools become dangerous to staff and students.”

    Given my admiration for your clarity, honesty and tenacity in ploughing such a thankless English furrow, I claim that I am reluctant to take issue with you.

    However…. given the 4 points which I highlight, is it accurate to affirm, as you seem to, that only at a later stage is danger involved?

    To highlight only 2 “prior” areas, does the spoiled educational opportunities of the non-out-of-control classmates and/or the mental health of teachers victimised not merit filing under danger/ous?

  3. […] Tough questions about behaviour […]

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