Last reviewed 27 June 2017

A new report has been published to help school leaders improve behaviour in their schools. Suzanne O’Connell outlines its main messages and considers the impact it might have.

In June 2015, Nicky Morgan announced the employment of a new school behaviour expert specifically to help teachers deal with low-level disruption in the classroom. Since then Tom Bennett has written and published a comprehensive report — Creating a Culture: How School Leaders Can Optimise Behaviour.

Tom Bennett is critical of the state of behaviour in our schools. He considers that some previous reports, including those from Ofsted, do not perhaps reveal the true level of difficulty that many schools are experiencing. He suggests that there can be motivation to cover up the problems that school leaders are having during inspection times.

Tom Bennett’s remedies to this are clear. It’s consistency, clarity and high expectations that are required. The culture he refers to throughout the report is one which is detailed in its setting of rules and procedures and rigorous in following them up.

Perhaps the main messages are nothing new, but, as he points out, they might be common knowledge but are not necessarily found in common practice. This is where he is keen to remove any blurred lines and oversee a school system that holds everyone to account.

Successful schools

The report includes a number of case studies and identifies a list of features that most successful schools have:

  • committed, highly visible school leaders, with ambitious goals, supported by a strong leadership team

  • effectively communicated, realistic, detailed expectations understood clearly by all members of the school

  • highly consistent working practices throughout the school

  • strong management teams with a balance of aptitudes

  • a clear understanding of what the school culture is “this is how we do things around here, and these are the values we hold”

  • high levels of staff and parental commitment to the school vision and strategies

  • high levels of support between leadership and staff, for example, staff training

  • attention to detail and thoroughness in the execution of school policies and strategies

  • high expectations of all students and staff, and a belief that all students matter equally

  • a clearly understood behaviour policy

  • a commitment to staff development.

The report emphasises the importance of cultural markers and levers when the school’s culture is publicly conveyed. This includes through assemblies, wall displays, timekeeping, stationery and uniform. All are highlighted as key to creating the right ethos for good behaviour to thrive.

Establishing your routines

School leaders should begin by designing the school’s culture through focusing on social and academic conduct and creating a detailed vision. They must then build the culture in practice, ensuring that it is absorbed throughout the school system. Routines must be designed in detail but should not overburden teachers.

School leaders should begin by asking “What would I like all students to do routinely?”. School routines for behaviour in corridors, lining up in the canteen, waiting for the school bus need to be carefully outlined so that everyone knows what is expected. Having established these, the rules must then be applied consistently.

Everyone should be clear about exactly what is in the behaviour policy and what is expected from them. Behaviour should be continuously part of schools’ planning cycle and school leaders must “identify what is universally required in every aspect of school life”.

Behaviour policies should be:

  • spelled out in detail

  • constantly referred to

  • made explicit throughout school life.

It is the leaders’ responsibility to support staff in front of students in relation to their decisions. However, they can hold staff accountable in private if there is a need to correct practice.

Those that fall through the net

For the majority of students, the regime that is described works well. However, all schools have children who have more difficulty in following the rules than others. In some cases, this is the result of a specific learning or behavioural difficulty. In other cases it might be a life event or temporary circumstance.

There is perhaps some tension here in how far all students must conform and the extent to which allowances are made for some. Tom Bennett recognises this and tries to find some middle ground. He reminds school leaders that they must make reasonable adjustments for children, for example, with autism, in order that they are not carrying out indirect disability discrimination.

However, he seems a little uncomfortable too with the idea of making exceptions and is keen to emphasise that schools must still aim high for these children: “Schools must be careful to publicly and consistently apply consequences to students’ actions”.

Schools will struggle to find the right balance between this advice and ensuring that they have made reasonable adjustments. The internal inclusion unit provides one means by which schools might address the particular needs of this group of students.

Internal inclusion

Tom Bennett recommends the introduction of internal inclusion units. They are places where students might go when available strategies to manage their behaviour have been exhausted in the mainstream classroom.

These units might:

  • purely sanction to deter others and influence future behaviour

  • be part of a supportive response — where the student needs help which can only be given outside the mainstream classroom

  • be a combination of both.

They might accommodate not only children experiencing behavioural difficulties but also those with learning needs. Tom Bennett suggests that students might also be placed there who have “a learning difficulty that challenges the ability of the teacher to remedy without greater support or remedial work needed for gateway skills like literacy or numeracy”.

We are told that a further report about inclusion units can be expected. This is important if schools are to ensure that such units retain a clear focus of purpose. The description in this report leaves the exact role of the unit open to interpretation. Muddled thinking around this can lead to poor practice and overuse by some members of staff.

Bennett also suggests that every school should have an area where students presenting temporary challenging behaviour can be “housed safely, quickly and quietly without fuss”. It is indicated that this area should be staffed but it is unclear as to whether it is also part of the internal inclusion unit or another dedicated area.

Will it make the difference?

There is some sound advice in the report and it highlights features of good practice and useful case studies for schools to consider. There are perhaps some areas that are touched on less. For example, communicating policy to parents and community is only covered briefly.

This is a big issue for schools who need to take parents with them when imposing very strict routines and dress codes, for example. If they don’t, this can result in parents changing schools with perhaps challenging students simply moving elsewhere rather than finding the best solution for them.

Perhaps what is most important and very difficult to secure is the relationship that each, individual teacher builds with their students. Having the right structure in place helps everyone to develop the right relationships but it is still reliant on the skill of the individual teacher to translate that policy into effective practice.