English Schools: What ‘Behaviour Crisis’?


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What Behaviour Crisis?

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What does the latest research say about zero-tolerance, isolation and banning mobile phones?

This is a welcomed report – 6 recommendations for improving behaviour in schools – from the Education Endowment Foundation. As ever with research, read it, take the details with the context provided and then translate any findings back into your school where appropriate.

Part of being the blogging-gig is that your inbox is inundated with ’embargoed’ press releases. Last week, a well-known teaching union sent me their press release. As a result, I have tackled three important topics currently discussed in English schools.

Where is the research?

What this research suggests is that even in our outstanding and inadequate schools, “behaviour is a significant issue affecting teachers in many schools, [yet] most pupils in most lessons behave well” – a point I have shared for years. Behaviour exists every day in classrooms, but it requires definition – what type? “Even in schools where behaviour is judged by Ofsted to be inadequate overall, the behaviour in most classrooms is rated more highly” the report continues.

Teacher voice surveys show that the proportion of teachers saying behaviour at their school is good or better has been fairly stable at 70-76% over the last 10 years – the problem is significant but not spiralling out of control. (DfE, 2017)

1. Zero Tolerance (or No Excuses)

To date, very few robust studies have assessed the impact of zero-tolerance policies on pupil outcomes, and no high-quality studies have been completed in English schools. On page 33, the EEF comment on a strict and clear whole school approach to discipline. In some of the hardest schools I have worked, this is so important, and any iota of inconsistency from any member of staff allows the wheels to fall off!

Although the zero-tolerance approach lacks evidence and is predominantly used in more challenging contexts, I can understand with a ‘no excuses’ stance is required. I wonder what language is used in suburban or independent schools when tackling poor behaviour? And we should also consider rising mental health, exclusions and our pupil SEND population who are often on the receiving ends of tough behaviour policies.

In this section of the report, EEF remind us all that “no high-quality studies have been completed in English schools. It would be valuable to conduct more rigorous evaluations.”

2. Banning Mobile Phones

From page 35 onwards, relatively simple changes to behaviour “such as a change to mobile phone policy are likely to benefit from careful implementation” and usage if often linked to behaviour incidents in schools. I’ve lost count of the number of safeguarding, bullying and confiscation issues I’ve had to deal with as a teacher and school leader. Equally, I’ve also seen the benefits of their usage in classrooms across the U.K.

“Many schools are limiting mobile phone use to improve behaviour and refocus pupils on their learning” as well as the blanket-ban in French schools – anywhere on school premises – with legislation passed in 2010 already states children should not use phones in class. It will be interesting to see the impact of this decision on pupil mental health, exclusions and examination performance in years to come.

The EEF study reports that the Centre for Economic Performance (2015) “found that pupils performed better in high-stakes exams following a mobile phone ban within [four] schools, with improvements particularly seen from the lowest-attaining pupils, as long as pupils were compliant with the ban.”

CEP writes, “There is no official policy or recommendation set out by the Department of Education in England regarding mobile phone usage in schools. Therefore, schools’ mobile phone policies are decided at the school level by the headteacher and the school’s governing body, which has resulted in a large variation in mobile phone policies.

With the absence of sufficient studies, teacher training in classroom management that is adapted for vulnerable pupils may improve behaviour within schools with a zero-tolerance approach.

The EEF recommends that the results are treated with caution because the data is correlational and doesn’t show a mobile phone ban caused the change in attainment. High-complinace and how this type of policy is also critical. As with anything in schools, it requires all staff to be consistent.

3. Isolation Rooms

What do we do with pupils we remove from lessons?

Perhaps not ‘isolated’ by definition, but time out and reflection on inappropriate behaviours is nothing new or shocking. In this report, there is not very much which explicitly references ‘isolation’ – in the introduction, ‘influences’ are a critical aspect of the research. There are at least 4 reasons why pupils misbehave.

  1. Attention seeking
  2. Poor engagement (inc. teaching)
  3. It feels good
  4. and it may lead to being rewarded.

Only six months ago, a call to ‘ban isolation booths‘ in English schools reached the ‘ears of those in parliament’. For 20 years, I sent, escorted, sent back (or excluded) pupils to isolation rooms – often ‘supervised’ by teaching assistants, school leaders (including myself) and specialised teachers with ‘behaviour’ featuring heavily on their job descriptions.

The real issue with all of this debate was not isolation or the furniture used, but the length of time pupils were sent such rooms. ‘Thirty-six days isolation‘ will have a story behind the headlines, but this is where the debate between teachers was lost.

We do have to ask, are schools meeting the needs of all pupils? Do they have the resources to support children? As ever, schools and teachers need pragmatic responses and a one-size approach will not work in every school.

Good or better behaviour …

Working within a profession which wants to become more evidence-informed at a classroom level, research rarely gives schools the answer for the complex world of the classroom. Where evidence is lacking – in these three examples I have highlighted from this report – something “useful to help schools evaluate their approaches, successes and any unintended consequences, would be most beneficial to all.” (DfE, 2018)

Finally, in schools where behaviour is judged by Ofsted to be inadequate overall, the behaviour in most classrooms is not inadequate. As the EEF suggests, “this should be treated as good news: even if behaviour is an urgent priority in your school.”

Improving Behaviour in Schools EEF Ofsted judgements

This questions the purpose of Ofsted judgements. If some teachers can teach excellent lessons in ‘inadeqaute’ schools but are then tarnished by a subjective term, why should a good teacher choose to work in that environment if it threatens their livelihood and mental health? Personal motivation may not be enough …

What next?

If some of our most challenging schools are rewarded by Ofsted and the Department for Education for tackling behaviour, but are not challenged for the inclusion of all children, particularly vulnerable students, then we do have to question if our focus on ‘curriculum intent’ works for a high proportion of a school’s students, why are some not there to study courses until the end?

Yes, we should exclude extreme behaviour. Yes, we should isolate pupils temporarily if there is a safeguarding issue to be resolved. Yes, we should hinder pupils from using mobile phones 24-hours a day. However, context is required and these headlines and your decisions should be up to schools with the best interests of children at the core of our decisions.

Improving Behaviour in Schools EEF

This is a very detailed and important document that will need to be carefully translated back into schools and in teacher-training programmes. You can download the full report, Improving Behaviour in Schools and the summary of recommendations poster (which would make a great display for your staffroom and resource for newly qualified teachers).

As Alex Atherton suggests in Off-Rolling and Progress 8, “Publish data in the interim, the median as well as the mean. This would ensure we can redress schools who [are] run in the interests of students, and not the adults who run them. Only then will we get a clearer picture of behaviour and which types of policies work in which types of schools …


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