Behaviour, for better or for worse?

Many teachers wish that all students would arrive at school ready to learn, respectful and mild-mannered. Of course, that’s not the reality, and there is a regular cycle of hand-wringing as people claim that behaviour is much worse than it used to be.

The debate is, quite necessarily, full to the rafters with anecdote. After all, there is no standardised scale of classroom behaviour, and certainly no measurements that can be used to compare things accurately. Memory is also entirely unreliable in these matters. I suspect the lessons that will really stick out in any student or teacher’s mind would be where great learning took place, where something funny happened, or total chaos reigned. supreme. The day-to-day level of disorder is unlikely to be remembered well.

Another problem is that people reconstruct their memories to suit their narrative. A teacher who rose through the ranks and ended up consulting on behaviour is more likely to remember how they improved behaviour against the odds, whereas someone who struggled and eventually quit teaching is going to justify this as being due to kids’ bad behaviour rather than any of their own deficiency.

So what evidence do we have? @OldAndrewUK pointed out a few interesting books from the 50s and 60s which talk about life in ‘tough schools’ where the worst behaviour mentioned was certainly mild compared to stories that circulate these days. A recent ATL survey claims most teachers think behaviour has deteriorated, and another report suggests that schools are going to extreme lengths to hide problems from inspectors. Certainly there has been emphasis from the new government on problems in schools.

However, on the other side of the fence we have evidence that Ofsted, PISA, and the British Crime Survey all suggest behaviour problems are decreasing.

So is the “behaviour was better in my day” something that can be dismissed as nostalgic rose-coloured-spectacled nonsense for those with a penchant for moral panic? Perhaps the idealistically smug “well *I* don’t have a problem, I just love the kids” brigade are wilfully ignoring a deterioration in behaviour in order to self-justify their careers? Perhaps both are true, in parts.

The truth is, we shall never know, we can’t possibly measure it, and there isn’t anything that remotely resembles hard evidence – it’s layer upon layer of anecdote. What is undoubtedly true is that where schools provide clear leadership, high expectations, engaging lessons, and rigorous, caring discipline, there is good and improving behaviour.

The big behaviour debate serves very little purpose. It becomes a destructive pawn in political games that do the education sector a disservice. You can’t win this argument, and there is little benefit from taking one side or another. I strongly believe people should just focus on what works, share good practice among teachers and parents, and expect nothing but the best from every child, and for every child.


13 Replies to “Behaviour, for better or for worse?”

  1. There is no metric for this, but it is pretty easy to act as a historian about it. We can look at reliability of sources and whether people have any motive to mislead.

    For instance, it is not just that those books I mention from the 60s don’t reveal really bad behaviour in classrooms (one of them does and it’s not as if I couldn’t find books from now that don’t admit to the behaviour crisis). The books were putting forward the idea that their schools were really, really tough and they did describe extreme behaviour outside of the classroom. They have no reason to deny bad behaviour in the classroom. The other book (Berg), which describes behaviour that is as bad as today, but argues that it is acceptable is revealing in a different way, in that the school it occurred in became a national scandal and was shut down. Now these are not books I selected to prove a point, but it would be very difficult to explain their existence without standards being very different back then.

    We have a similar situation with the reliability of anecodotal evidence. How many of the people who say that behaviour is not worse have no motive to lie? How many of them also deny that the behaviour at the moment is bad? Ask people who have been classroom teachers (not SMT) at an average comprehensive for 25+ years and you won’t get contradictory anecdotes. Ask almost anyone who isn’t a denialist about how behaviour is now when it got this bad, and, if they are of a certain age, they simply won’t say “it’s always been like this”.

    Now this is the evidence of the historian not the scientist, but it is more reliable than PISA (who I am fairly certain didn’t do comparisons with decades ago and ask relatively little about behaviour) or OFSTED (who are measuring nothing other than the capacity of schools to hide behaviour from OFSTED).

    But if you really aren’t convinced then go out there and have a look for yourself. It is a problem that is really only hidden from those who don’t want to find it. It is written on the face of every teacher who is over 30 and went to an ordinary comprehensive themselves. Many PGCE students (well the older ones) articulate it within a few hours of being in an average school: It wasn’t like this when I was at school.

    1. Just FYI I am 31, attended a comprehensive, and teach at that same school now, and I think behaviour seems reasonably similar, but it’s hard to judge.

  2. As somebody who has spent over 40 years working in schools, 29 of those as a Teacher and the rest in a Support capacity as the SIMS Guru, I think I might just have a unique insight into this topic.
    There cannot be many still working in schools who, in their probationary year, were allocated from the LEA ‘pool’ to a Secondary ‘Modern’ School housed in a Victorian Building, prior to ROSLA and to the introduction of the Comprehensive education. Of course, I was not the only probationer to be allocated to schools such as this, in areas like the East end of Sheffield (for those that know the area!). How the LEA selected which of us for the east end and which for the west I have no idea! Maybe it was a big compliment, but maybe not! However, there can surely be very few of us left that are still actively involved in working in the ultra modern schools of today! As a grammar school educated young man I was oblivious of the existence of such schools and the consequent behaviour issues that existed. My first Teaching Practice was a real eye opener. I think that many of my compatriots failed that practice, as did I, due to the complete ignorance of the social deprivation that existed and the antisocial behaviour that resulted.
    I can confirm that the behaviour of pupils in those days, in that sort of school, was in a totally different league to what we now experience in the Comprehensives within Sheffield. Starting in the Teaching Profession now must be an ‘absolute doddle’ (sorry to say it to you younger practitioners!) as compared to those dark days! The stories I could tell would make your hair curl! And I had a big advantage, being rather fit and athletic in those long gone days and so able to gain the respect of some of the little darlings, simply because of my sporting expertise and prowess! Entering the profession stuffed full of Nuffield Science and having to cope with a dark, dirty dungeon, with a few dirty jam jars for apparatus and the odd battered and torn ‘Windridge’, was indeed an eye opener! I am not sure how the modern probationer would cope in that environment and with some of the behaviour that we had to tolerate. Fortunately the back-to-back slums that surrounded and served the school were cleared a long, long time ago! And the school itself is now long gone, its successor (subsequently regarded as a ‘failing school’) having been replaced by an Academy housed in a £multimillion pound modern building. I would have regarded such a vision as absolute fantasy if it had been suggested when I was trying to instil a little order, respect, skills, knowledge etc. into my pupils at the time!
    Truly, present day teachers do not know how lucky they are! I am sure that some of the younger ones at my own school just do not believe me, if and when I relate a few stories to those who ask about my experiences over 40 years ago!

  3. Interesting?
    Is that all ……………… ???
    Maybe you just not comprehend how lucky you are today! And who could blame you ….
    You operate in a totally different world!

    1. You haven’t actually given us any real details by which we can judge it. I’m genuinely interested because although I have met many people who have taught for decades I have not met one who says it was tougher back then.

      That said can I just check, are you saying you haven’t taught for 11 years?

  4. Then I am afraid that you have not asked the right people. Those that ‘taught’ in the Grammar Schools of the day would no doubt say that behaviour has declined over the decades – the deluded few! And some of those that had a background in the grammars and had to convert with comprehensive reorganisation simply could not cope!
    As for my own experience – I still work in a school and even though I have not taught for over a decade I am not ignorant of the Pupil Behaviour issues! As a teacher I regarded my profession as a vocation, as did most of my peers. This term cannot be applied to some that now enter the profession and, dare I say it?, the workforce reform has done a lot of damage to the image of the teacher in latter years.
    What I and my peers regarded as a natural part of one’s responsibility in helping pupils develop into young adults capable of taking a constructive place in society is now, to some, ‘not my job’ anymore!
    I will not comment further as I would not want to be accused of being unprofessional!

  5. Presumably there are some ways of acquiring hard evidence about this, since most schools have behaviour monitoring systems, and lots of that data is retained, increasingly it is done so electronically. So there is data which might be examined and throw some light on this, at least the claim that behaviour has got worse over the past 5 years. Data retained could be compared with staff perceptions, which might throw some light on the ATL survey.

    1. The trouble is that school behaviour systems are only as accurate as the information put in. At the schools with the worst behaviour teachers get warned about recording too many incicdents, or have no time to enter every incident.

  6. Mike,

    It is possible I have spoken to the wrong people, and I accept that most long serving teachers I know are comparing the comprehensives of decades ago with today’s, rather than thinking of secondary moderns.

    However, why should I respect your opinion over theirs when:

    a) you apparently haven’t taught for 11 years

    b) you are refusing to tell us any actual details of what behaviour was like


    c) your views about when behaviour was good or bad may related to the way you perceive yourself.

    1. • Point of Order 1 – I also taught in the comprehensives of decades ago – from Day 1 of Comprehensive reorganisation actually! Behaviour improved greatly in those early years partly as a result of the pastoral support that was introduced.
      • Point of Order 2 – Although I have not actually taught for over a decade I am extremely close to what happens in the classroom in my current role. I have been a member of staff (both Teaching and Support in this school (and its predecessor) in excess of 30 years. Being a Governor of the school is also a big advantage in being able to judge Behaviour now and in previous years.
      • Point of Order 3 – I have not ‘refused’ to give actual details! I have simple declined to do so as I did not expect my observations to be challenged. However, I will give one example. Have you ever, (partnered with a police officer) had to patrol the School, it’s playgrounds and the neighbourhood around the school – looking for factions of two different ‘gangs’ from within the school to remove the bicycle chains, pick-axe handles and other assorted weapons that the members of the gangs were carrying for their ‘rumble’ later in the day. I have – and so were several colleagues doing the same in the same incident. Interestingly, no knives were involved in those days – there was honour between the gangs in those days! An extreme example? Maybe so – but I can recite many such examples of this type of extreme behaviour that no longer happens in the normal course of events. Many older teachers should remember the inter-school ‘battles’ that occurred in the 70’s and 80’s – especially those like myself, who freely offered to step into the fray to keep the warring factions apart until the police squads arrived. This does not happen on that scale now.
      • Point of Order 4 – I have never stated that I was more dedicated and professional than other teachers. What I have said is that many young teachers today are not as concerned with the personal/pastoral development of the pupils as many of those that taught in Sec Mods and in the early days of comprehensives were. This is not an attack on the individual staff but rather a reflection of the changed ethos in schools. In my opinion the introduction of the workforce reform is one of the main reasons for this change for the worse.
      I will make no further comments in this debate. I gave my opinions freely and did not expect to have to defend my experiences or have them doubted. If you choose to ignore my contribution then you are obviously free to do so but please do not attempt to further belittle what I have said or to argue against my observations. It is very easy add your voice to what appears to be a majority opinion. It takes far more courage to speak out against the majority view and that opinion should be equally respected! There can be no argument against one’s experiences!

  7. 1) That’s quite an important point to have missed out of your earlier analysis.

    2) Appealing to your experience as a governor is even worse than appealing to your unspecified position as someone who works in a school. Very easy for a governor to say everything’s wonderful when it isn’t and I have seen that time and time again.

    3) The reason I wanted your examples was because I wanted to check if you were talking about the same thing I am talking about when I say the evidence shows behaviour is worse. I have already acknowledged in my first comment that extreme behaviour outside the classroom is nothing new. My reaction to what you describe is actually to think how much easier it must have been to teach in an era where teachers felt able to challenge pupils and intervene when there was violence.

    4) Sorry, but you did slag off at least some of the current generation of teachers and contrast it with your own sense of vocation, and it did reduce the credibility of what you said.

    I’m sorry if you feel offended at being challenged, but I think it key here to check the reliability of sources where possible, the context from which people speak and to what extent an opinion is informed by relevant experience or knowledge. I wanted to know if you knew what secondary teachers face in the classroom now, and knew it to have existed for decades rather than being new.

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