So the government’s ‘behaviour tsar’, Sir Alan Steer, has now published the fourth and final part of his review into behaviour in schools in England. And Secretary of State Ed Balls has signalled that he will support Steer’s recommendations. Among these are the ideas that schools should club together to provide social workers for disruptive students and support groups for the parents of such students.
The first response of National Association of Headteachers general secretary Mick Brookes was to point out that 3/10 of teachers leave the profession due to student behaviour problems while NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates has criticised behaviour management training as being ‘inadequate’.
Clearly student behaviour is a major issue that the government is not tackling successfully.
My own experience in the 9 years I’ve been back (part-time) in teaching is that there has been a general collapse in standards of discipline right across the secondary sector and reaching deep into Key Stage 2. In many schools, classes below the topmost sets in Key Stages 3 and 4 are often little more than battle zones.
There is, of course, in the popular imagination, a mythical Ealing Films-style ‘golden age’ when young teenagers were only mildly pranksterish in their misdemeanours and primary school children were uniformly well-behaved ‘little darlings’. In reality, that mythical golden age never existed and researchers from David Hargreaves (1967) on have been fairly consistent in painting classrooms – especially secondary – as places where there is a significant difference between what the teacher is charged with accomplishing (ie: a learning environment) and what the ‘students’ will accept as relevant to their existence.
Beyond the recent lurid headlines – even in the ‘serious papers’ – of primary students being expelled for bringing knives to school, is student behaviour actually getting worse? Are things more problematic than they were in Hargreaves’ day? If union statistics on teachers citing behaviour problems as their principal reason for leaving the profession can trusted, then the answer is Yes. Things are actually going from bad to worse.
It needs to be stated that there are schools where the majority of students are well-behaved and motivated to learn. Healing on the outskirts of Grimsby and Frederick Gough in a lower middle class/upper working class district of Scunthorpe are just two schools I’ve taught in and been impressed with the behaviour and attitudes of students. However, even in Harrogate, the affluent middle-class town I have called home for the past 4 years, all the schools experience some degree of behaviour problems and students being temporarily (and sometimes permanently) excluded is not exactly uncommon.
What’s going wrong?
8 years ago I created ‘A Downward Spiral…’ as an analysis of what was going wrong in Britain’s classrooms. As an overall view, it stands the test of time extremely well. Nothing it has to say about the roots of bad behaviour amongst children and the effect that has on classroom discipline and performance has dated at all. That I can say that with confidence is an indicator of how much the Government has failed to get to grips with problem behaviour amongst young people – in spite of all the money they have thrown at it.
Of course, ‘A Downward Spiral…’ deals with themes and makes generalisations. So individual circumstances and individual qualities such as temperament are not taken into account.. The big omission is the gender difference in behaviour – boys tending to have some degree or other of the impulsiveness and compulsiveness of Psychoticism (attributed by Hans J Eysenck & Sybil Eysenck (1976) to the effects of high levels of the male sex hormone testosterone.). Of course, girls do behave badly and some develop strongly habituated patterns of bad behaviour. However, it is boys who cause the bulk of disruptive behaviour in schools – it tends to be boys populating the school isolation units and boys who get excluded more often than not.
In children going through puberty and beyond, the RED vMEME, usually after playing second fiddle to PURPLE throughout early childhood, comes into its own as the driver to assert self and move the individual towards independence from their parents and old family as a prelude to establishing their own, new family as part of the next generation.
However, RED’s desire to assert self can be a real problem for others attempting to inhibit that person’s self-expressive behaviour. If, in a boy, RED settles into a Psychoticist temperament and forms a RED-Psychoticism centre of gravity or ‘lock’, then the self-expression will be impulsive and compulsive. 12 and 13-year-old boys are often at a loss to explain cognitively – in any way that makes any kind of rational sense – why they thumped the child next to them or persisted in shouting out the answer despite the teacher demanding the standard hands-up-in-silence routine for answering questions. What they’re experiencing is the unholy alliance in their psyches of RED and Psychoticism. They are truly, in that moment, effectively out of control.
It’s also worth noting here that, the more pre-puberty PURPLE fails to get its safety-in-belonging needs met, the more RED will emerge in an unhealthy way, perceiving the world as a ‘jungle’ where no one is safe and the only the strongest and toughest survive. Thus, it’s no surprise that the first ‘knifers’ in a school often come from one-parent homes suffering poverty and deprivation. The meme gets modelled and spread and more and more knifers appear as emergent RED in other kids fastens onto the knife as a means of asserting power.
And, as a final factor in our all too brief analysis of what’s going wrong, we need to consider the values parents give their children about school – the memes they infect them with. Since, pre-puberty, parents are the primary socialisers of their children, it is hardly surprising that, if parents don’t have positive values about school and education, their children don’t.
What to do?
Sir Alan Steers has recommended social workers for unruly students and support groups for their parents. On the face of it, this sounds expensive, bureaucratic and unlikely to be very effective. In fact, it seems like more of the GREEN vMEME’s failed policy of trying to create understanding and consideration – from which insights will presumably lead to respect and co-operation. It usually doesn’t. How many ‘problem children’ already have social workers attached to them, with little positive effect…?
Steers’ GREEN might just be blinding him to reality. In an interview in the Guardian last September, he said: “The vast majority of children don’t arrive at school in the morning thinking: oh, good, I’m going to get into trouble.” No, some actually do because of the kudos it brings them from other ‘bad boys’ – Nicolas Emler (1984) called this ‘reputation management’; if they can’t get esteem from academic success, their RED will lead them down other routes to get it. Plenty more drift into disruptive behaviour via that potent mix of RED and Psychoticism. All it needs is a few minutes of boredom and the child next to them gets kicked or otherwise provoked – a move made without thought of consequences other than to relieve the brief tedium. And bad behaviour easily becomes habituated if it is rewarded by other students. (Research – eg: P R Constanzo & M E Shaw (1966), A Palmonari, M I Pomberri & E Kirchner (1989), T O Harris (1997) – has shown consistently that teenagers are socialised more by their peers than anyone else.)
Steers rightly places great emphasis on improving the quality of teaching and learning and engaging students with interesting and relevant topics. However, making topics interesting and relevant can be an almighty challenge given what the ‘system’ says they should learn and what is actually really relevant to the lives of many children.
A personal anecdote…
Several years ago when teaching History at a secondary school in a highly deprived area of a town where the main industry, fishing, was mostly gone, I was tasked with teaching Year 8s (13-year-olds) about the Reformation. How was this relevant to teenagers whose fathers, uncles and grandfathers had worked the trawlers until the fishing industry had all but collapsed…teenagers, most of whom had never left that part of town and fewer even who had ever been in church??? (I polled one class and found that only one student had ever seen a Bible!) Even an attempt at turning the story of Henry VIII’s wives into an Eastenders-style soap met with only very limited success. My proposal that we should develop a local history module around the town’s fishing history – which would allow the Year 8s to collect personal anecdotes from family members – thus feeding PURPLE’s love of the oral tradition – along with the more standard ways of doing History was rejected on the grounds that we could only teach what the National Curriculum specified.
Most of the students at that school didn’t want to be there – saw no value in it because their parents saw no value in it (memetic infection) – and tried not to be there. Truancy rates were extremely high and the school’s Education Welfare Officer was forever cajoling and then threatening parents, to force them to send their teenage children to school.
To return to Steers’ recommendations, support groups for parents generally have a better track record than social workers attached to problem children – especially where there is an element of training in parenting skills involved. The biggest hurdle seems to be actually getting the parents of problem children committed to a support group and sticking with it. Such parents often have social, emotional and economic problems themselves and are already known to the police and social services in their own right.
Sir Alan Steers is one of the most successful headteachers of his generation and there is much of merit in his report. Undoubtedly there are major roles for social workers and support groups in improving behaviour; but, much, much more is needed. When we consider just the brief, partial analysis I have offered it is obvious that social workers and support groups are like trying to use high quality, expensive sticking plaster on a massive, gaping wound. If applied correctly as part of a raft of other measures, it might help make a difference. And so it is with Steers’ reported proposals. On their own, they are nothing like enough.
8 years ago I created ‘Potential Spiral Solutions’ as an action-oriented companion piece to ‘A Downward Spiral…’. Again there is nothing I would change…but there are a number of things I would add.
The strategies in ‘Potential Spiral Solutions’ need to form the core of a full-scale MeshWORK.
The MeshWORK concept was delineated retrospectively by Don Beck from his part in bringing Apartheid to an end in early-mid-1990s South Africa. By using what was shortly thereafter termed Spiral Dynamics, Beck helped turn the focus from colour of skin to who thought in what way. As was once put to me (perhaps over-optimistically?) by some white undergraduate students from the Boer-dominated Transvaal, Beck succeeded in taking racism out of South African politics…?!?!?
Put rather simplistically, Beck’s MeshWORKS concept involves bringing together all interested parties to look down the ‘spine of the Spiral’ at the relative health of each vMEME as a cultural operator – ie: at the relevant macro level – and then decide what to do about it in the interests of the Spiral as a whole.
The MeshWORK concept is at its most effective when designed through the 4Q/8L construct!
A MeshWORK will address the needs of each vMEME of all players in all contexts with regard to the health of the Spiral as a whole.
Making OFSTED useful
If Sir Alan Steers and his team really want to resolve the issue of disruptive students and the hellishly damaging impact they have on both teachers and other students, then they need to undertake a full MeshWORK process with all interested parties – teachers, police, social workers, parents and students, etc. They need to look at the health and well-being of each vMEME through the lens of each Quadrant and also how the vMEMES in each Quadrant relate to the vMEMES in the other Quadrants.
Strategies can then be developed to meet the needs of each vMEME in each Quadrant in a way that is conducive to the well-being of the Spiral as a whole.
And, because each school in each area will be unique, each school will need its own MeshWORK. Certainly, methodologies and strategies will be transferable between schools but the working assumption will need to be that every school requires a unique diagnosis and unique treatments.
Developing the mechanisms to put in place a MeshWORK for every school in the UK , obviously, would be very expensive. But, surely, the positive effect of learning how to inhibit the stimuli for negative behaviour and create positive classroom environments that will enable the vast majority of students to engage with the learning process is a key part of the Government’s much vaunted Every Child Matters policy?
Plus, there are cost-savings to be gained in terms of reduded stress-induced absenteeism amongst teachers and reduced levels of crime and vandalism amongst children and teenagers.
Plus, the kind of network of MeshWORKS I’m proposing needn’t be that expensive. In OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services & Skills) there already exists a body and a framework for conducting a MeshWORK in every school in the country. After all, OSTED already have huge amounts of valuable data on every school and they are responsible (in terms of oversight) for ensuring that every educational institution and children’s service enables the children who use it to maximise their potential.
Of course, there would need to be some expansion of OFSTED’s remit beyind inspection and regulation to include support and guidance – but many OFSTED inspectors offer this informally anyway. The mindset of OFSTED would have to move way beyond BLUE to gain the holistic sense necessary to understand how learning really happens and what motivates people to learn. But the benefits to our young people – indeed, society as a whole – would far outweigh the costs of putting the mechanisms in place.