The rise of “draconian” and “inhumane” behaviour approaches is damaging the mental health and education of pupils, the National Education Union has said, after its members voted in favour of council oversight of behaviour policies in all schools.
At the union’s annual conference in Liverpool this morning, delegates voted to instruct NEU leaders to campaign for local authorities to have oversight of and involvement in the development of behaviour policies “for all the academies/schools in their districts”.
The use of so-called “zero-tolerance” and “no excuses” behaviour policies has increased in prevalence in recent years. Such approaches are favoured by the government and its traditionalist supporters, but are bitterly opposed by many educational progressives and teaching unions.
Critics of the policies blame England’s school accountability culture, funding cuts and the fragmentation of the school system through the academies programme for the rise in popularity of approaches such as the use of isolation booths.
“I think it’s child abuse,” said Anna Wolmuth, a teacher in a pupil referral unit in London.
“To put young people, and we’ve heard the stats about many of them being young people with special educational needs, with autism, with ADHD, to put them in a room or a confined space in silence without the support that they need I think is inhumane.”
Wolmuth warned that funding was a factor, and called for smaller class sizes.
“I think it’s cheap to run a school system for the 90 per cent on these clear rules and then get them out of the classroom.
“It requires a lot more funding to have the smaller classes that I think are necessary and I’ve really seen this since working in a PRU, what the quality of learning, the quality of the relationships you can develop when you’re in a smaller group.”
Ros McNeil, head of education and equality policy at the NEU, said the “breakdown of local authorities” was also a factor.
“When you had local authorities, they could get all the schools in the local area working together, and they had behaviour teams, specialists who did outreach with all of the schools, so then you could have more consistency of what the levels of children’s behaviour were and what the sanctions might be.
“And at that point pupil referral units used to have enough staff to do outreach with all of the local primaries and all of the local secondaries so there was a cohesive approach which has broken down.”
Today’s motion warns that zero-tolerance behaviour approaches lead to pupils being “informally excluded from classrooms” and to pupils spending “inappropriate and harmful amounts of time” in isolation. It also warns the use of isolation booths for extended periods “has a detrimental effect on the mental health and education of all children”.
Such approaches “promote surface-level compliance without addressing the needs underlying challenging behaviour”, the motion said.
It goes on to warn of “increasingly draconian” behaviour policies, such as the so-called “flattening the grass” approach used by some academy trusts, as revealed by Schools Week earlier this year.
School behaviour policies “should be based on pupil welfare and relationships first and foremost”, the motion states.
The union will now commission and disseminate research on approaches “that are humane and respect the rights of the child”, and will then promote these approaches to headteachers. The union will also support members in raising concerns about and challenging “inhumane and unjust” policies, and produce new guidance for schools.
Kevin Courtney, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said: “The current draconian approach to the education of children and young people is turning our schools into exam factories and squeezing the joy and creativity out of the classroom.”
But Tom Bennett, an adviser to the government on behaviour issues, described the motion as a “huge leap backward in behaviour policy”.
“The idea that councils will have greater discernment than schools about good behaviour cultures seems faulty. The best people to decide what structures and strategies are needed, are professionals working in schools.
“Also, this decision, while undoubtedly well meant, is based on the false premise that schools are being cruel or abusive. Nothing could be less true. And the basis for this criticism is unsubstantiated. This seems like a huge insult to teachers trying their best to keep children and staff safe.”