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Teachers Say Gavin Williamson “Has Not Done His Homework” On Plans For Behaviour Crackdown

7 min read

Education unions and teachers have hit back at the education secretary’s calls for a behaviour crackdown and a ban on mobile phones in schools, calling it “the least useful approach the education secretary can take”.

Gavin Williamson claimed on Wednesday that children have lacked “discipline and order” during lockdown home schooling, and this will “inevitably” lead to poor behaviour.

"There is nothing Dickensian about a classroom that is a well-ordered, disciplined environment, where firm and fair teaching gives every child the chance to learn and develop at their own pace without fear of distraction," he wrote in The Telegraph.

Williamson also said that he “firmly believes” mobile phones should not be used in schools, and added that he “will be backing headteachers that implement such policies”.

His remarks, however, have attracted condemnation from unions and school leaders, many of whom argue that Williamson has “misjudged” the mood in classrooms across the country. 

“The feedback we’ve been receiving from our members is that the Education Secretary has not done his homework on the issue of behaviour in the classroom,” said Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). 

“Quite contrary to what Mr Williamson has said, heads are reporting a sense of calm and cooperation from students that is deeply impressive. Young people are relaxed and pleased to be back at school and, most importantly, behaviour has never been better.

“The Education Secretary’s assertion that our students have somehow gone feral during lockdown is an insult to both parents and teachers, who have put enormous effort into ensuring education has continued despite the challenges of doing so outside the classroom."

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said calls for mobile phones to be banned drew attention away from other issues facing teachers and school leaders. 

“Talking about mobiles is a distraction. Schools generally have very clear policies and the question they have is where is the flexibility they need to be able to make recovery education realistic and personalised for their students,” she said.

“Restoring the routines of school life and face-to-face teaching gives children huge resilience but teachers are really worried about how many students need expert support outside the classroom, and that curriculum expectations simply must be adapted to what's happened this academic year.”

She added: “With all the challenges currently facing schools, playing to the gallery by talking tough on behaviour is the least useful approach the Education Secretary can take.”

The Department of Education has also announced details of a new £10 million Behaviour Hub programme, under which 22 schools with strong behaviour policies would support struggling schools to improve.

Concerns about the education secretary’s stance are also shared by some teaching staff. “I think he's totally misjudged the view from the classroom and so do most of my colleagues,” Jon Biddle, a primary school teacher from Norfolk, told PoliticsHome.

“Pupils have had an incredibly tough stop-start year but, on the whole, have coped wonderfully. Now isn't the time for arbitrary 'tough guy' policies.”

Many also argue that behaviour problems have not been exacerbated by lockdown, and that pupils in their care generally had a positive experience when returning to the classroom. 

“I find his claim that behaviour had deteriorated because of lockdown to be a strange one,” a secondary school history teacher in London, who wished to remain anonymous, said. 

“If anything, behaviour is better because there are more systems in place that have to be adhered to, so it has shifted the culture. 

“Bad behaviour is definitely an issue that needs funding and support but it’s been that way for a very long time and I don’t think lockdown has changed that.”

Recent data collected by the Teacher Tapp app suggested that general student behaviour in March 2021 had actually slightly improved over the previous year.

The poll of around 6,000 teachers found just 29% of teachers had experienced students arriving late or struggling to settle into lessons, compared to 44% the previous year. 

Teachers also reported fewer incidents of asking students to leave the room, falling from 8% to 4% over the period, and of giving pupils detention, down from 12% to 7%.

Calls for better discipline in schools have been welcomed by some quarters, however. Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said plans for behaviour hubs could help schools “learn from and support each other” when it came to improving behaviour.

“The NASUWT has always been clear that teachers cannot teach and pupils cannot learn without good order and discipline in our schools,” he continued. 

“The Union’s experience confirms that while there are many examples of excellent practice across the education system, some schools require further support to secure and sustain high standards of pupil behaviour.”However, Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust which oversees 52 across England, cautioned against the overuse of discipline rhetoric in schools as children adjust post-lockdown.

He argued that, while some children have had very positive experiences throughout lockdown, others have struggled due to a lack of support or other mitigating factors in their personal life.

“One of the heads of our sixth forms said it's amazing how some kids have gone forward [over lockdown] while others have got stuck,” he told PoliticsHome.

“And they really struggled to reacclimatise in terms of their behaviour, which is challenging.”

But Chalke didn't believe a behaviour crackdown was the way forward. "You're not dealing with the issues, you're just suppressing them,” he said. 

“The problem with word discipline in our culture is 'I'm gonna discipline you' sounds like 'I'm gonna punish you'. Whereas, in actual fact that word discipline, the dictionary definition is to train.”

“When we talk about discipline, we really mean punishment. And that's a big error. So, if this policy is based on repression it will backfire.”

His sentiments are echoed by The Children's Society, who argued that the pandemic has left many children "feeling isolated" and "more exposed to risks both inside and outside the home".

“Despite this, we are not aware of any evidence that their behaviour is worse and our practitioners report that on the whole young people have been relieved to get back inside the classroom," said Mark Russell, the charity's chief executive.

“This announcement from the Secretary of State completely misses the bigger issue, which is children’s well-being. Our Good Childhood research has found high levels of stress associated with school and a fear of failure, with more than one in ten young people being unhappy at school.

“When behaviour is difficult, children need support as it is a sign that they are struggling with something," he continued.

“The answer is not behaviour hubs but support from teachers and staff to understand why children are behaving in this way and the impact of successive lockdowns."

The government expects its Behaviour Hubs programme to be up and running by the summer, and hopes it will help transform 500 schools over three years.

It is being headed by the government's behaviour tsar Tom Bennett, who said the project will "build a model that works" before expanding to other schools.

"This has the capacity to make a real and substantial difference to the lives of futures of many thousands of children and families and I cannot wait to see it develop," he said.

Under the programme, the 22 lead schools will advise their counterparts on systematic approaches to maintaining order and discipline across the school, such as forbidding the use of mobile phones and maintaining quiet corridors, the Department for Education said. 

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