The answer to schools’ behaviour problems is not to create more unregulated provision – accountability is key, says Jackie Ward

Behaviour tsar Tom Bennett has – after much consultation with a variety of “successful schools” – published his independent review Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour.

After raising an eyebrow at the term “independent” (he has, after all, been commissioned by the government who may or may not have their own agendas), I found much in his report that I agree with, but also plenty of food for thought.

I am not going to take issue with the many sources Bennett has referenced, coming as they do from a founder of ResearchEd. Rather, I want to focus on the thrust of the research, which places responsibility for behaviour on the shoulders of school leaders.

Behaviour has to be a collective responsibility

As a former deputy head, special needs co-ordinator of a primary pupil referral unit (PRU) and now an independent behaviour and SEND consultant working with mainstream schools, I agree that a whole-school approach with a consistent behaviour policy is a cornerstone for successfully managing behaviour in schools.

School leaders are only part of the story, however. While they can inform practice, staff are individuals, not robots, who have strengths and weaknesses, particularly in relation to behaviour. Behaviour has to be a collective responsibility, as even one dissenting voice can derail positive processes.

Bennett talks about “vulnerable” staff such as newly qualified teachers (NQTs) needing extra training and support, but experienced staff struggle too. I have seen NQTs working wonders with challenging classes using restorative approaches, while long-standing teachers send a stream of children to stand outside the head’s office – in contravention of school procedures.

In one case study, he credits academisation for turning a particular school around yet, in this instance, only two of the original staff were left. Are we seriously expected to think that taking a hard line and culling the “wrong” staff is the answer?

In another example he suggests that routines become school rules: for example, walking on one side of the corridor! I find a common thread running through the report is one of power-based control, where the adults are enforcers examining hemlines and hair colour. Effective schools are ones that apparently stamp out individuality in pursuit of the “good behaviour” grail.

More worryingly, he glosses over SEND by saying that trusts, for example, should pool SEND funding and create their own alternative provision (AP).

He also advises that challenging schools should have their own “inclusion” units funded centrally. How will this be monitored? Who will populate the AP and inclusion units?

PRUs are often full of children with unrecognised SEND who may need support to get a diagnosis, education, health and care plans and/or places in special schools. Can we really expect school leaders to make the right judgment calls?

Local authorities are sometimes rightly criticised for their approach to pupils with SEND, but can be more easily held to account. The answer is not to have more unregulated provision, where the child on the autistic spectrum who has sensory meltdowns ends up in a sort of “sin bin”!

There is also the question of whether these pupils are accessing a curriculum that meets their needs and getting the right funding; this priority preoccupies all the heads I meet. They are desperate to do the right thing for all their pupils and are crying out for help. More individual accountability and training for them will not solve these wide-ranging problems, but will just pile on the pressure; the lonely job just got lonelier.

I applaud Bennett for tackling such a contentious issue and agree that children have the right to a good education, undisturbed by the poor choices of others, but putting all this on to school leaders is not, in my view, the right way forward. They are at the mercy of societal change, government whims and Ofsted and need as much support as anyone else. Or they will leave. And then we really will be in trouble.

 

Jackie Ward is a behaviour and SEND consultant