Perfidy, Mendacity and Behaviour for Learning

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

James Baldwin

I’m sure that this blog isn’t going to make me Mr Popular. But sometimes you need to say things simply because they need saying.

I’ve read a few blogs recently about approaches to behaviour and it felt as if I’d fallen into some time travel vortex and been sucked back into the nineties when ‘superheads’ were still labouring under the apprehension that the way to improve both behaviour and results in underperforming schools was to use subterfuge to change the cohort of students who attended by, simultaneously, permanently excluding local ‘troublesome’ students and bribing middle class parents with small classes, high levels of technology/resourcing and free music lessons.

Okay. I know it worked for individual schools, but it also crippled schools in their locality. In this self-improving and collaborative future which we are heading into schools that attempt this ‘pass the problem’ approach will destroy and undermine the whole system

I read Stuart Lock’s blog ‘No excuses’ with initial interest and, then, gradually mounting alarm which culminated when I read his defence of his behaviour policy saying how he ‘was so brazen about upholding our standards to the point that pupils have to leave our school.’ Surely, I thought, that as local community schools our role is to educate the children of that local community. However challenging those students may be they are OUR children and we have a duty to educate them even if they might not always follow ‘our rules’.

I then stumbled across Tom Sherrington’s blog ‘Towards Impeccable Behaviour’ via an interesting take on it in the Daily Mail who celebrated the ‘300 students a day in detention’. Now I know from personal experience not to trust a Daily Mail story or a Daily Mail headline; but I was drawn in to a fuller reading of Tom’s blog and I was, again, concerned about where this was leading.

When I was appointed to my first headship back in 2004 it was in a small town with two schools. Soon after arriving the head of the other school told me about the brilliant new behaviour system he had introduced after attending a seminar in Birmingham led by a ‘superhead’. This was the same ‘Behaviour for Learning’ system that Tom is now using at Highbury Grove. The advantage of this system, I was told back in 2004, was that it ensured that the school gathered all the evidence required for an exclusion hearing. Hmmmmmmm! That seemed to give away the underlining purpose.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying either of these headteachers are simply trying to displace their problems. In fact I am sure that both are driven by values and principles. But I do worry about a headteacher who states, as Stuart does, that: ‘You meet our expectations or you face the consequences – no exceptions.’ My understanding of schools and of learning is that it is all about the exceptions. In my classroom I help students understand that there are no absolutes: the truth lies in the grey shades between black and white. And if I expect students to understand the importance of relativism then surely I have to live out that value.

A quick digression back to 1999. As Head of English I was asked if Hay Leadership Consultants could undertake some research into effective teaching in my department. I was asked to choose an effective and a highly effective teacher. My selections were easily made and I was interested in the outcomes. I knew my effective teacher, Dan, was hard working and had excellent subject knowledge, but then so was Jane, the highly effective teacher. So what made the difference?

After they had been interviewed by the researcher I spoke to Jane. She said the interview began with the researcher placing a box of tissues on the table between them saying they were ‘often needed’. Jane initially thought this was unnecessary, but halfway through the interview she was weeping like a good one. Good teaching, it seems, was to do with passion and caring about your students. Yes, I know we know this. But that Hays research, although it was subsequently bastardised into teachers’ standards, remains some of the best research into effective teaching I’ve ever read.

It is building relationships which counts. It is relationships that lead to success.

Now do we scale this up by setting school rules that disregard the essential differences between students? By ignoring what we know about their background and home life? Stuart says his system works by using the example of a student who has succeeded because ‘not allowing him to use anything outside of school as an excuse for not meeting our expectations means he can focus more on being here and shaking that off.’

Do I want my students to ‘shake off’ their background?

I am sure Tom would say his Behaviour for Learning system is, as it suggests, all about learning. But looking at the structure outlined in the blog I see the same system predicated on absolutes which lead inevitably to isolation from class followed by exclusion from school.

Now don’t characterise me as someone who doesn’t support teachers. I do.

And don’t suggest that I blame teachers for bad behaviour. I don’t.

But there are plenty of times when I have removed students from lessons to subsequently discover that the student was unable to access in or understand the lesson. No wonder they were disengaged.

Not all students are the same. We expect to be treated as an individuals and that’s how we should treat our students. They don’t ‘get away with it’. But at the same time we don’t give up on our students.

That’s what comprehensive education and local schools are all about.

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