The bring back the birch mob

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Behaviour in schools is back in the news – and everybody has a view on it. Brian Lightman discusses behaviour management and its links to teacher training.

So behaviour has been back in the news again. The media love it, the “bring back the birch” mob comes out of the woodwork and the speaker at the House of Commons (which could certainly do with a dose of behaviour management) tells the secretary of state for education to go off and write some lines during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions. 

As with so many educational topics, everybody who has been to school has a view about it. Even Michael Gove, who has steadfastly proclaimed that professional decisions should be left to the professionals, feels qualified to recommend which sanctions will work.

The days of managing behaviour by coercion have long gone. As schools know, the real challenge is dealing with the children who are not motivated, who lack aspiration and often do not receive support from home.

Many schools are making real strides with these children, enabling them to taste success, heighten their self-esteem, and raise their ambitions. There is no single right way to do this, but an appropriate curriculum, skilled teachers and strong leadership that promotes high expectations and an ethos of encouragement, aspiration and ambition all matter.

The television programme Tough Young Teachers has brought this challenge vividly into focus. I am pleased that Teach First and the trainee teachers took the courageous decision to be involved. 

Yet I am sure I am not the only person who has felt uncomfortable watching these programmes, recognising the mistakes that new teachers make and the behaviour that can be encountered, from a normally well-behaved class in a well-ordered school, when the teacher has not yet learnt the tricks of the trade. Surely we have all been there – I certainly have.

There is a vast body of knowledge about pedagogy, neuroscience, child development, classroom management and the methodology of teaching any subject. I absolutely reject the idea that because someone knows their academic subject well they know how to teach it. The embarrassing scenes in David Starkey’s lessons on Jamie Oliver’s television programme brought that home.

And this raises big questions about some of the current thinking about initial teacher training.

The idea that teacher training until very recently took place in the ivory towers of university is a myth. Throughout my 16 years of headship, trainees spent the majority of time in school. But it was not just about practice and it was certainly not about being thrown in at the deep end.

As with other professions, new teachers need to acquaint themselves with a body of professional knowledge. There is a real question as to how we ensure that all new teachers have access to this when there is so much local flexibility and a very minimal national framework.

Having had that, they then need to learn how to put it into practice. A period preparing a small number of lessons in great detail under close supervision from a professional tutor, teaching those lessons and evaluating them closely enables trainees to gradually develop a complex range of skills.

Even when they have completed their formal training they need a carefully structured period of support, induction and early professional development when taking on their first full-time post. And this needs to be an entitlement – wherever you are trained.

The Tough Young Teachers programmes begin by quoting the statistic that 50 per cent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Teach First is doing a great job attracting lots of people into teaching. My challenge to current and future governments is to set itself an ambitious target to increase that percentage dramatically, as a success indicator for its stewardship of initial teacher training in England.

  • Brian Lightman is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk


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