And indeed, it takes from our achievements, though performed at height, the very pith and marrow of our attribute. – Hamlet
Behaviour as an issue in schools isn’t going to go away. Tom Bennett was on Newsnight about it recently, saying some very sensible things when he was allowed. And of course on Twitter there have been conversations about how managing behaviour is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The “end” that people have in mind is usually learning. “Behaviour for learning” is a slogan with some currency in UK schools, and it seems to make sense, especially if you are a school leader and Ofsted are going to write a report that evaluates whether or not behaviour in your school promotes learning. But that very pragmatism can undermine our efforts. In the real world, we do not behave in order to allow others to learn. We behave in order to get along. We behave in order to survive. We behave in order to make society a bit better than we found it. If I was a student and the only reason teachers gave me for behaving was learning, my deduction would be that if I don’t want to learn then there is no point in behaving.
To consider an analogy: I play chess against my phone sometimes, a useful measure of my cognitive functioning after a hard day. One of the things I have noticed is that if I make the wrong moves at the opening, it can be very difficult to break out of that losing position. When schools only offer a pragmatic rationale for pro-social behaviour, we establish a losing position and spend the rest of our time on the defensive, fighting a losing battle.
So what, Mr Speaks, do you propose as an alternative?
What speaks to people, including teenagers and children, is the combination of truth and kindness. They are unarguable. Upon these principles we can build integrity, relationships and ultimately community. All of these things transcend learning – and certainly transcend the somewhat mercenary scrambling for grade percentages of recent times. Learning is good, and necessary – but it is not a sufficient rationale for all that schools actually need to achieve.
Another way of saying this is that because we have organised learning as an institutional endeavour with great social complexity, we must invest in facilitating the relational pre-requisites to learning – for example, trust, security, confidence and challenge. It will be obvious that these are hierarchical – one cannot feel secure without trust, one cannot feel confidence without security, one cannot welcome challenge without trust and security.
A school with a thousand students and over a hundred staff is a very complex community, one that has to deal with a multitude of competing priorities, agendas and needs. It is simply not realistic to take so many people, put them into pressured, time-limited lessons in a tight universally observed timetable, weight that system with heavy incentives and threats, invite students and parents to express their views, give the staff more jobs to do with insufficient resources – and then tell schools to improve the behaviour of tomorrow’s citizens, or Ofsted will criticise you. Schools need a compelling argument for standards of behaviour that everyone (except perhaps the true sociopaths) can respond to because its values speak to them.
Schools reflect the society that they are part of. Much as reformers would like to think otherwise, schools are not primarily agents of change, but reflect the political agenda – the ideology, if you like – of whoever has enough political power to hold the purse strings. But even our political leaders can’t get people to agree – apart, perhaps, from the venal consensus that more money is always good. The problem that schools face with behaviour is a wider problem in society: we no longer agree on what is right, what is wrong, who is in charge or what our responsibilities to each other are. A few hours a year of “values education” isn’t going to change that.
It has been said (though I can’t remember by whom) that education is in fact a battle between barbarism and civilisation. I do not think of my students as barbarians, but I do think my job is to help them acquire the characteristics of civilised members of society – civilised as in the civis, the member of a city-state or society. That is my privilege and my duty. It is difficult, it can be discouraging, it feels very much like a battle. But I do not feel that I can contemplate surrender. I want my students to behave well, not because it will help them learn – of course it will – but because it is the right thing to do, for them and for all of us.
I am well aware that such a view may be dismissed as old-fashioned, traditional, even authoritarian. Of course I reject all these labels. Rather, this perspective is the reason that I think my job is worth doing – not so that the school improves its exam results, but so that my students become more than they might have become without me. I want them to behave for learning, but even more I want them – and me, and my colleagues – to become better people.