Dr Terry Haydn also calls for more support for schools and a change in culture, policy and practice if inequalities in classroom behaviour are to be tackled effectively.
It follows the publication this week of the first of a three-part Times Education Supplement (TES) series on the problem of behaviour in UK schools, in which Dr Haydn says that many schools find it difficult to preserve a classroom climate that is perfect for learning in all lessons.
He is concerned that last year’s Steer Report on behaviour and some reporting of Ofsted statistics understate the extent of poor behaviour in schools. “The latest Ofsted annual report states that behaviour is good or outstanding in the vast majority of primaries and secondaries, with less than one per cent considered inadequate,” said Dr Haydn. “So how can we reconcile that with statistics showing that 17,000 pupils were expelled for physical attacks on adults last year?
“What I am arguing for is stronger and more concerted support for schools from parents, governors, LEAs and government. There is a need to change culture, as well as policy and practice. It will need a concerted effort to establish both the principle and the reality of ‘the right to learn’ in all classrooms; to embed in pupil and parent consciousness that no pupil has the right to spoil the learning of others and to find the best possible solutions for the problems posed by difficult and disadvantaged pupils.”
Dr Haydn added: “The overwhelming majority of pupils, parents, teachers and policymakers want classrooms to be calm and ordered places where all pupils can learn, but until there is a full acknowledgement of the scale, nature, and complexity of this problem, these inequalities are likely to persist.”
Dr Haydn’s research, conducted over several years, suggests that poor pupil behaviour is a far more widespread problem than has been reported. Some of his work measures the working atmosphere in classrooms on a 10-point scale, with level 10 representing an ideal learning environment, and level 1 describing classrooms where learning is severely constrained by pupil behaviour.
“Nearly all the teachers I interviewed said there were times when they struggled. Although there were many schools where the bottom three or four levels on the scale did not occur, most respondents recognised the intermediate levels. In those lessons, pupil behaviour would limit not just learning and outcomes – it would also affect preparation, as some planning would be directed towards keeping control rather than learning. Even very experienced and accomplished teachers talked of working at below level 8 on the scale.”
He also cites research suggesting that behaviour in UK schools compares unfavourably with standards in many other countries, due at least in part to cultural and attitudinal differences, with education being considered much more important and valuable by parents and young people in many other countries.
“In this country, level 10 is not a natural or default state of affairs and it takes considerable skill to get all pupils to be keen to learn and to co-operate wholeheartedly with the teacher and other pupils in the class, especially when there are large numbers of difficult pupils in a school,” said Dr Haydn.
Many teachers who participated in the research talked of doing their best to help difficult pupils, whilst protecting ‘the right to learn’ of other pupils. Dr Haydn argues that addressing these tensions in the best interests of all pupils is an important issue in education.
“The extent to which pupils are in classes which are under the relaxed and assured control of the teacher is one of the biggest inequalities of educational opportunity in the UK,” he said. “It is difficult to prove conclusively whether any particular aspect of behaviour has got better or worse, given the number of variables involved. But the question should be not how behaviour compares to the past, but how it affects schools now.”
In his research Haydn points out that classroom climate is also an important factor in teacher retention and in the quality of teachers’ working lives. He cites one NQT respondent who said “There’s a massive difference between operating at levels 7 and 8, which are OK, no big hassle… and level 10, when it’s just a fantastic job, pure pleasure, and you can get a real buzz out of the interaction with pupils. It’s like the adverts for teaching on the TV but in real life.”
Dr Haydn stresses that good teachers, good school systems and effective collaboration between teachers are important ‘variables’ in determining levels of classroom control. However, he argues that simply blaming ‘inadequate’ teachers or ‘bad’ schools is unhelpful.