We are often told that behaviour is not really a problem in the vast majority of English schools. In 2012, the government reported that classroom behaviour was “at least satisfactory” in 99.7% of schools. More recently the department of education claimed that behaviour is “good or outstanding” in 92% of schools.
My research suggests these figures seriously underestimate the extent to which behaviour is eating away the time teachers spend teaching. This is important because several studies have found that classroom climate has a significant effect on pupil attainment.
The research used a ten-point scale which attempts to estimate the extent to which deficits in classroom climate may interfere with pupils’ learning. Level ten is where the working atmosphere is ideal for learning, and level one is for classrooms where learning is severely limited by pupil disruption.
Teachers were asked about what levels on the scale they had encountered, their views about factors influencing the working atmosphere in the classroom, and why there were variations in classroom climate within schools, as well as between schools.
More than 90% of student teachers reported they had sometimes been in classrooms where poor behaviour had limited pupil learning, and 90% reported that they had encountered level six on the scale or below. Even experienced teachers said that they sometimes found it difficult to sustain a perfect classroom climate. All the head teachers who were interviewed said that behaviour was “an issue” for their school.
Battling to keep control
This is not the only research to indicate that deficits in classroom climate are quite common in English schools. A recent survey of 2,000 pupils conducted by the Children’s Commissioner found 80% of pupils reported that other pupils often disrupted their learning.
In 2005, former head of Ofsted David Bell stated: “All schools to a greater or lesser extent, even if they are otherwise orderly or successful, have to deal with a number of pupils who cause disruption. You can have relatively small numbers of pupils having quite a substantial and disproportionate effect on the others.” My research suggests this is a more accurate and realistic assessment of the scale of the problem in English schools than more recent estimates.
OECD surveys show teachers in England are often working in more challenging contexts than their counterparts in many other countries, where cultural and out of school factors, such as parental support for schools and teachers, are much more positive.
Recent TV series such as Tough Young Teachers and Educating Yorkshire show teachers and schools often have to make quite difficult decisions about how to manage difficult pupils without simply excluding them, passing them on to other schools or avoiding admitting difficult pupils.
It is simplistic and unhelpful to insist that “level ten” is a natural or default state of affairs in terms of classroom climate. Or to imply that it is easy to create an environment where all pupils behave and are keen to learn and do well.
The management of pupil behaviour requires the development of complex and sophisticated skills: it is not a matter of applying simple teacher training mantras such as “be consistent”, or “don’t smile before Christmas”.
Even very accomplished and experienced teachers have to work with considerable resourcefulness to create and sustain a perfect classroom climate without sending out difficult pupils.
Satisfactory is not good enough
Perhaps it all depends what is meant by “satisfactory”. I would argue that that behaviour cannot be interpreted as satisfactory if some pupils are impeding the learning of others and if teachers are not able to teach the class in a way that focuses primarily on optimising pupil learning rather than on control.
It would be helpful if there was an acknowledgement from the department of education, Ofsted, and the media, that poor pupil behaviour is a complex and intractable problem. The last thing I want to do is to put even more pressure on heads and teachers who are doing a very good and important job, often in challenging circumstances. What is needed is stronger support for schools and recognition of the difficulties involved in securing a classroom climate which is ideal for learning.
The overwhelming majority of pupils, parents, teachers, governors and policymakers want a calm and positive working atmosphere in classrooms. There is a need to support schools and teachers in making this possible, based around the idea of “the right to learn”. This should help to instill a culture among parents and young people that no pupil has the right to spoil the learning of others. Early intervention, in the form of universal, free and high quality nursery education would also be a helpful and cost-effective investment.
Until the scale, nature and complexity of the problem of behaviour is acknowledged, these deficits in classroom climate are likely to continue.