Kurt Lewin, considered the founder of social psychology, ran an experiment involving two classrooms of teenagers run under different teaching philosophies. The ‘democratic’ style was co-operative and less aggressive. The ‘authoritarian’ style achieved more work, but when the teacher left the room students exploited the freedom and chaos ensued.
During a temporary stint in the private sector following my formative years in the secondary state sector, I was struck by students left alone in classrooms. “Are they allowed to be in there?” I asked. “Of course,” my manager replied. How many state schools in the UK would do the same?
I expect most state teachers would not leave them, at least not for very long. This reflects the dominant behaviour management paradigm in schools. While not authoritarian, it is very contingent on the authority of the teacher.
Whether behaviour has declined since Covid is contested. Common chatter claims it has. But Teacher Tapp survey analysis showed behaviour issues were no worse in 2022 than 2018. Regardless, a persistent finding is that behaviour is an issue nationally. One report shows half of teachers in poorer areas expect behaviour to affect learning in lessons, as do a third in wealthier areas.
Meanwhile, attendance is an unambiguous post-Covid issue. The average pre-Covid was 5 per cent of classroom time missed. Now it’s closer to 9 per cent. A recent government report identified that just 15 per cent of children enjoy coming to school.
So what policy context could a new government set for schools beyond endorsing ‘no excuses’ and ‘silent corridors’?
The problem may be an over-reliance on behaviour management. While effective in some regards, these techniques cannot foster a whole-school community identity in which students feel they belong. By contrast, a strong school culture that develops resilience among students is more likely to support attendance and foster a sense of community.
Behaviour management principles such as routines, consistent systems, sanctions and rewards play an essential role in ensuring order. But they are not sufficient. The tyranny of techniques which behaviour management relies on means it is a fragile tool where students are cajoled into behaviours almost unthinkingly.
Where problems occur, the focus is on how teachers can improve or how systems can be tweaked. Behaviour management can maintain order, but doesn’t necessarily develop characters sustainably. A change – like a cover teacher or a new teacher – can precipitate a system collapse.
We should be unapologetically ambitious for students, not just for their academic outcomes but who they are as people. A common refrain I see or hear among teachers is how levels of disrespect have increased. Sometimes schools can be bereft of basic civility. Rather than constantly reacting to behaviour, more could be done to upstream the issue, to consider how to get students to behave in the long-term, to nurture virtues as moral citizens beyond the school gates.
State schools often have worthwhile values plastered on the school or website, but behaviour management distracts from thinking about how such values can be meaningfully embedded in the day-to-day experience of students. They should be leaned into so students become part of a powerful school culture in which they choose to behave primarily because it is the right thing to do rather than for fear of punishment. In a word cloud of a school day, ‘detention’ should be outnumbered by use of school values.
Graham Nuttall observed that “when there is a clash between the peer culture and the teacher’s management procedures, the peer culture wins every time”. Behaviour management offers little to develop peer culture. Schools could think more strategically on how to use students to positively influence their peers.
Recently, my school ran a week focused on gratitude. As part of that, students gave speeches in assemblies. One student, who struggles behaviourally, thanked a teacher she clashes with for their care. This expression of thanks, in front of peers, generated a special moment with lasting impact beyond the hall.
Schools have a responsibility to cultivate citizens of good character. Ideally, we want to be able to trust students to be alone in the classroom because of what it says about them as people and their relationship to their community. It prepares them for their future without a teacher to correct them when they get things wrong.