This year has seen an intensification of the focus on behaviour policies and practices in schools. While I am not a behaviour specialist I do know that the discussion cannot be had in isolation. For example, if we promote social justice at the heart of education, then we need a system that nurtures rather than punishes those within in and that is sustainable over time. If we are concerned about the disadvantages faced by some young people we should be outraged that our school system often leaves those who are most vulnerable and their families battling decisions made at school, academy chain and local authority levels. I am also depressed by the funding crisis in schools in England. Not only is there less money per learner, but there are increasing costs to schools, there is evidence that SEND budgets have been particularly squeezed, and much of the money previously available for teachers to extend their learning has been diverted into narrowly defined and funded pet projects offering training in implementing narrowly defined interventions.
These concerns do form a nexus. Over nearly twenty years as a teacher educator I have personally watched thousands of NQTs enter schools from their ITTE various routes, and I have worked with hundreds of qualified teachers. I want to be able to say to them all, “you will always be supported to learn”, “your opportunities for development will be formative”, “your practices as a teacher, and hopefully a leader, will become more sophisticated over time”, “what challenges you now will become your sources of wisdom later” and “as a professional you will be enabled to meet the needs of all learners, because that is what we are there to do”. For me a great sadness is that, as the years have gone by, I have felt less confident to do so.
I have watched teaching, learning, assessment and behaviour policies and practices in schools become disrupted over and over again by the narrow measures of performance that they are subject to. I have witnessed (first hand as an adoptive parent), through the accounts of teachers and through the media, and now via the Education Select Committee and Ofsted a growing acknowledgement that things are going wrong for too many young people in too many schools. I have listened to head teachers who battle long and hard to lead inclusive schools, to become attachment-aware, to develop trauma-informed learning communities, not because it earns them a place higher up the league table, but because for them it is unquestionably the right thing to do. I have heard head teachers explain how that decision seems to give a license to neighbouring schools to persuade parents of the more vulnerable and, yes let’s be honest, the more troubled children, who seem most troublesome in schools not designed for them, to send their child down the road because “they’ll be better supported there”. I have seen teachers becomes more fearful of building relationships with kids and their families that might mean that they are not following strict consequence-based behaviour policies. I have heard teachers, under pressure from all quarters, argue passionately that they can only be expected to teach a certain type or child a certain type of curriculum. There is evidence that the use of isolation booths is growing and is largely unregulated, and I believe that their use is often counter-productive.
So, my priorities in to support teachers to support learners are as follows. I offer these in the knowledge that they need enabling by more than words, but also by enhanced funding, effective leadership and by political will.
- Change the discourse; the classroom is not a battleground so lets stop talking about enforcing behaviour and discipline, and start talking about relationships as the foundation for shaping behaviours.
- Change the use of resources; stop using booths as a means to resolve the urgent and immediate behaviour concerns of the teacher, start to infuse all schools with the more expert and relationally driven ways to diffuse situations which will flare up whether we want them to or not.
- Change the performance measures; stop policies that mean that some kids just don’t count to some schools and start writing a new narrative of quality education based on social justice and opportunities for all learners regardless of where they live, and what burdens they carry with them.
- Change the career-long professional development opportunities for teachers; stop reducing their professional efficacy by encouraging them to pass problems on and start to provide them with expert training and coaching to help them reframe their classrooms as inclusive spaces.
Many in the teaching profession carry a passion for a more inclusive, more relationally-informed and more sustainable future in schools. This is a conversation we must have both within the profession and beyond it. I want to give teachers back their confidence, not just to teach the demands of the curriculum, but also to meet the demands of society for young people to leave school with their self-esteem intact, their talents acknowledged, their ability to empathise and for self-determination enhanced.