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.