Behaviour: The elephant in the classroom

Written by: Brian Lightman | Published:

Government support to tackle poor behaviour is welcome, but action must involve training, school leadership and all teachers, says Brian Lightman

Is the behaviour of school pupils worse than in the past? Anybody hearing about the government’s appointment of behaviour expert Tom Bennett to lead a new taskforce to tackle low-level disruption might conclude that this is the case.

The reality, of course, is that this sort of behaviour is nothing new. While pupils playing on mobile phones may be a relatively recent issue, irritants such as children swinging on chairs, tapping their desks with rulers, and making silly comments were ever thus.

It was probably just as much a part of life in classrooms in the era of Tom Brown’s Schooldays as it is today.

What has changed is the focus now being put on the issue by government. It points to last year’s findings by Ofsted that children could be losing up to an hour of learning a day because of low-level disruption, the equivalent of 38 days lost every year.

Mr Bennett said: “Behaviour has been the elephant in the classroom for too long, and the amount of learning time lost because of disruption is a tragedy.

“At present, training teachers to anticipate, deal with and respond to misbehaviour is far too hit and miss – great in some schools and training providers, terrible in others.”

His point about teacher training is a good one. In last year’s Carter review of initial teacher training, the Association of School and College Leaders argued that all teacher training programmes, wherever delivered, should have a core curriculum which includes classroom management.

At the moment, there is no framework like that and the amount and quality of this type of training varies. Sir Andrew Carter’s report, published in January, agreed with our point and made it a formal recommendation, “with an emphasis on the importance of prioritising practical advice throughout programmes.”

Since then, the Department for Education has commissioned an independent expert group to develop a core framework.

This is good news and the right training is essential in tackling low-level disruption, as well as more serious behaviour problems. However, there are also other important factors.

The most obvious of these is leadership. Behaviour management has to be led from the top and emphasised from the top.

Going back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, we may have moved away from the fearsome discipline imposed by Tom’s headmaster, Thomas Arnold, but having a leadership team that sets the standards of behaviour is just as important in today’s schools.

The key, of course, is that those standards are clear, fair and consistently applied.

It is not just a matter of the head and leadership team taking responsibility for discipline though. Every teacher has to do it too, and insist that they are supported in doing so. It really is a team effort and everybody in a school has to play their part.

Anything which helps to support schools in tackling poor behaviour is good news and the appointment of Mr Bennett is a welcome move – but every school in the country must have teachers with the right training to tackle this problem, as well as strong, well-supported leadership.

There will always be some poor behaviour, and low-level disruption will never entirely disappear, but we must do more to get to grips with the “elephant in the classroom”.

  • Brian Lightman is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit


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