Is the discussion about school behaviour as polarised as it first seems?

Embed from Getty Images

In March 2017, the British government released a report, authored by Tom Bennett, called Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour. In one section of this report, Bennett discussed the different reasons why it may sometimes be better for a student to be withdrawn from a standard classroom and he wrote about what he called ‘internal inclusion units’:

“Once available strategies have been exhausted, it can be necessary and in the student’s best interests to be somewhere their needs and behaviour can be better provided for.”

At the time, Dr Linda Graham, an Australian researcher, took a dim view of Bennett’s report and, in particular, the concept of inclusion units. And yet, in a recent piece for The Conversation, Graham writes the following:

“Sustained bullying (cyber or otherwise) is another example where suspension may be appropriate. But in-school suspension, where students are removed from their regular classes and required to complete their work in a supervised setting, is a better option than out-of-school suspension.”

This comes immediately after a paragraph outlining what Graham believes are justifiable reasons for exclusion from school:

“There are times when suspension is appropriate, such as when a student brings drugs or a weapon to school, or engages in physical violence resulting in injury. Hitting a teacher is never OK. But even here, it’s important to make sure a frightened five-year-old accidentally connecting with a teacher mid-meltdown is not construed as a deliberate act of violence.”

I can’t help wondering whether the opposing sides of this debate are as far apart as they first seem.

We can perhaps understand the situation better by looking at the main thrust of Graham’s article.

Graham argues that exclusions have increased in Queensland after a change of rules that allowed principals to exercise more discretion. She notes that these increases are not necessarily large, but the implication of her argument is that the numbers have moved from a more appropriate to a less appropriate level. I am not sure about this. It is possible that some incidents that according to Graham’s own criteria should have led to an exclusion in previous years, did not do so due to the tighter regulation. That would account for any increase. We would need to know what the natural level of exclusions should be and this would be extremely difficult to determine.

Graham then goes on to link exclusion with increases in antisocial behaviour and contact with the criminal justice system. There is clearly a link, but it is hard to determine that this is because exclusion causes these outcomes. Some of the evidence to support this case comes from matched studies, but consider this: If two children are matched in every way, but one of them does a terrible thing at school, which one do you think is more likely to go on to have contact with the criminal justice system? It is highly likely that there is an underlying factor that causes both the behaviour that leads to exclusion and contact with the criminal justice system.

Moreover, if we take a look at Graham’s list of acts that she believes should lead to exclusion, to which I would add sexual assault and verbal threats or racist abuse, perhaps this point is moot. Do we really want to keep an abuser in a classroom because the life chances of the abuser might be affected if he or she is excluded? What about the teacher and the other students and their rights to a safe working environment? At some point, we must all concede there is a trade-off.

If we can establish the points that we agree upon, perhaps there is room for a fruitful discussion around the details. If we agree, for instance, that a school has a role in teaching pro-social behaviours, we can discuss the best ways of doing this. At one point, Graham states, “For students who have language disorders or attention difficulties, teachers can adopt proactive strategies that benefit all students.” She then lists a series of strategies that seem entirely sensible and overlap a great deal with the strategies I promote in The Truth About Teaching in the chapter on classroom management.

Some of the social media debate becomes particularly emotive around so-called ‘no excuses’ schools (a term I dislike). However, one of the key features of these schools in the establishment of routines that act to preempt and prevent behaviour issues from arising and Graham recommends both ‘clear and consistent routines’ as well as ‘well-designed seating plans’. This is the kind of antecedent control supported by extensive research. There is common ground here if we can avoid the temptation to divide everyone up into bewhiskered, romantic rebels versus sadistic authoritarians.

It is worth seeking such common ground because the details are worth discussing. For instance, Graham makes the point above that, “it’s important to make sure a frightened five-year-old accidentally connecting with a teacher mid-meltdown is not construed as a deliberate act of violence.” I would agree. I would add that a student swearing in the course of talking to a teacher is not the same as a student swearing at the teacher. Let’s thrash out some of what we mean and how, as a community, we believe we should deal with a range of challenging behaviours. It is this practical level that most engages teachers and schools.

One issue we might even label as a kind of meta-antecedent is that of reading instruction. As you might expect, there is a clear correlation between those students who are excluded and those with poor reading ability. It seems understandable that a child who cannot read – something that schools require students to engage in every day – will start to dislike school and misbehave. Can we not at least all agree that we should use the most effective, scientifically based approaches to teaching reading and that we should intervene heavily with those students who struggle? That’s a cause for which we can all carry a banner.

And perhaps the remaining differences between positions are not as stark as Twitter hyperbole generated in school shaming incidents suggests. Perhaps it is the case that we all agree there are circumstances where exclusion is appropriate and we all agree there are circumstances where internal suspension is appropriate (although we dislike certain terminology). Perhaps the real difference is one of emphasis: a different perception of appropriate rates of exclusion and a different perception of the impact of exclusions on the excluded and the extent this should be weighed in our decisions.

A discussion around these points would likely be more productive and less heated than the current debate.


4 thoughts on “Is the discussion about school behaviour as polarised as it first seems?

  1. Markus Stoor says:

    In the same spirit I would like proponents of explicit teaching and various constructive approaches to sometimes state numbers in how often various methods should be used.

    A school that was supposed to be an inspiration to reforms of another school I worked at due to the modern constructive methods and good results turned out to devote 10% of class time to these methods. An afternoon every week.

    We were supposed to work like that every day.

    I would not mind 10%. 50% is a whole different matter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.