What school rules?

Unless schools set high academic standards, they will never get the buggers to behave. A teacher writes.

Dave Perks

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‘You touched it last. Pick it up and put it in the bin’, says a grumpy teacher. ‘No I won’t. It’s not my rubbish’, retorts a sullen boy.

This skirmish, on the playing fields of a south London state school, is nothing out of the ordinary. But before you draw your conclusions as to the victor, consider the ammunition each party has to draw upon in resolving the conflict. The teacher can call on a library of classroom management books, not forgetting the government’s national behaviour and attendance strategy launched in December 2002 as an attempt to ‘restore respect for authority to its rightful place’ (1). The youth has his wits about him. Can there be any doubt about the outcome now?

A quick look at Sue Cowley’s Getting the Buggers to Behave, a recent popular survival guide for teachers in the classroom, gives us a few clues as to which side is in the ascendancy. She begins with good clear advice that before children can learn they need to ‘concentrate’ and ‘behave themselves’. Basic advice includes ‘being firm but fair’ and ‘always be polite’.

The idea that you start very strict and ease off later is basic stuff to trainee teachers. Setting clear goals and your own standards and then sticking to them are all fine expectations. But read on and something else is implied in the book. In tackling the first lesson with a new class, Sue Cowley stresses the need to avoid confrontation. She suggests that allowing the student to win ‘will end the confrontation and save you undue stress’, and adds ‘they only think they have won’ because ‘you know you are really in the right’. This may do for a supply teacher who never sees the class again, but it won’t do if you have a relationship that spans two years with a group.

There is a contradiction built into the advice given in this book and other popular guidelines on behaviour management. It is assumed that, as a teacher, you have no authority over the pupil other than your position as an adult in the classroom – an adult who is in any case severely constrained by the expectation that the pupil’s rights come first.

Behaviour management techniques assume that the relationship between pupil and teacher is one founded on lack of respect. The model is a security guard in a shopping centre, or a policeman confronting a criminal. This might work if the task is to keep behaviour to acceptable minimum standards so that those who overstep the mark can be removed and dealt with. What it does not do is create an atmosphere based on respect for the teacher as a source of knowledge and experience valuable to the student.

In one sense, all that books like Sue Cowley’s do is recognise that teachers, like all adults, are hampered in their relationships with young people and children by a failure to discipline children in society at large. Society increasingly seems to be losing respect for all adults and authority figures. At every level of their lives, children are told to look to third parties – advice groups, counsellors, teenage ‘mentors’ – to negotiate on their behalf the relationships they have with adults. So it is little surprise that teachers feel this collapse of their authority in their dealings with young people. It is, after all, a regular occurrence to hear youngsters remind teachers that they will sue them if they so much as touch them.

Behaviour management is the hands-off approach to discipline in circumstances where the adult cannot rely upon the support of society in dealing with the youngsters in his or her care. The plethora of books and videos now circulating in schools as part of the government’s National Behaviour and Attendance Strategy are designed to reinforce the message that we can only succeed in instilling a low minimum standard of behaviour in schools, and we should lower our expectations of pupils in order to satisfy that achievable target.

The focus on school-wide expectations and rules may seem like the basis of good learning, but when it replaces intellectual challenge and engagement, there is a real shift in expectations from education. And as the obsession with pupils’ behaviour grows, in teacher-training colleges, the staff-room, and in government departments, the purpose of schooling is shifted further and further away from education and focused more narrowly on simply ‘getting the buggers to behave’.

If state education becomes refocused on to behaviour and behavioural standards as an end in itself, then it will necessarily be low standards that are achieved. Yet if, instead of concentrating simply on whether students are rude, poorly dressed or turn up late, education demanded high standards of academic achievement, the need for discipline would be clear.

The current crisis of school discipline is a product of the deeper crisis of education today. The ability to set high standards requires having a purpose and a reason for reaching those standards. With little on offer academically in schools today, except for an inexorable string of unsatisfactory and undervalued qualifications, schools and the government are forced to try to impose discipline through arbitrary standards of behaviour.

This problem is compounded by the official preoccupation with retention rates. At the same time as attempting to drive up behavioural standards, the government is attempting to force schools to keep more and more students in sixth form education to study A-level subjects for which they don’t see the point. By insisting that schools increase retention rates, the sanction of not tolerating poor academic performance is removed.

Academic standards have become so devalued that students are allowed into schools to study A-levels with such low grades they are nearly guaranteed to fail, which has the effect of packing A-level classes with unmotivated and poor achieving pupils. A-level classes are now the most mixed ability groups in schools. Whereas mixed ability groups are the exception in all other areas of the state schooling, at A-level they have become the norm.

The consequent decline in discipline results in a behavioural focus – for instance insisting on the wearing of student ID cards, with students sent home from lessons if they fail to do so. This is ostensibly for security reasons. It is claimed that as students don’t wear uniform in the sixth form it is hard to identify intruders. However, even evidence taken from the CCTV cameras installed in sixth form common rooms makes it clear that having large numbers of disenchanted and unsuitable A-level students does much to encourage fights and vandalism within schools.

A focus on high academic standards, even if it means allowing weaker students to fail, would give teachers a much easier way of explaining the need for discipline. Discipline built on the necessity to work hard to achieve good grades and the chance to win a place at a good university would do much to improve behaviour in schools and colleges. It might get students to read books and take notes in lessons, rather than forgetting their ID cards.

Dave Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, Tooting, South London and author of a forthcoming chapter in The Routledgefalmer Guide to Key Debates in Education: A Student’s Guide examining the impact of theories of intelligence in education, to be published in July 2004 (see Amazon UK). He is also the originator of the Debating Matters competition for sixth form students organised by the Institute of Ideas and Pfizer.

Buy Getting the Buggers to Behave , by Sue Cowley, from Amazon UK

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