What we need to know is why behaviour is a significant issue

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Last week, I met a seasoned veteran of headship. She’s led several schools in different parts of the UK, and she said something that unnerved me: “Geoff,” she said, “you have no idea how different young people are these days from when you were a head”.

Really, I wondered. Have young people actually changed?

So, earlier this week, I asked ASCL members to share their experiences of the behaviour of young people since the pandemic and whether standards had declined. 

My goodness. I wouldn’t have expected the response I got – the sheer volume of responses or the bleak depiction of what they said.

Now, look, this is a difficult topic. The last thing we want to do is give the impression that pupils are running amok. Most young people are respectful, polite and abide by the rules with an understanding that those rules exist for the good of everybody in maintaining an environment that is safe and conducive to learning. Similarly, it has always been the case that the behaviour of some pupils is challenging for a variety of reasons, and managing those issues is part and parcel of school leadership. The issue here is whether poor behaviour is more prevalent and worse, why that might be the case, what impact this may have on institutions and individuals, and how it might be addressed.

Here's a sample of the messages received:
  • Since the pandemic behaviour is unrecognisable. It is manifesting itself in dysregulation on a scale never seen. Calm refusal to comply with basic expectations is regular now. Extreme anxiety. Many students do not see the logic that they have come to school and therefore need to go to lessons. Not coming to school at all is more common.
  • An issue which was never a problem before, is pupils walking out of their classes for little reason and refusing to engage with teachers but just content to wander the corridors. Whilst the numbers are very small it is highly disruptive taking up hours of staff time.
  • Social media is adding to the challenge with incidents happening outside of school which are then brought into school, and we just don’t have the capacity to deal with them.  
  • Post covid we have seen a rise in the behaviour we previously did not have issues with. Basic compliance, non-attendance, defiance and a lack of respect has for a small core become the norm.
  • The disruption to students' education has led to some of them losing all their 'filters' about how to behave or speak in a particular context. We have experienced vandalism of property, such as toilets, increase way beyond anything we had experienced before.
  • A core group of pupils refuse to go to lessons, refuse to follow simple instructions and challenge sanctions on a daily basis; achieving compliance is an hourly struggle with these pupils who no longer respect what education has to offer and see schooling as optional.

It is clear from the messages received, and what we are hearing in general, that behaviour has become more challenging since the pandemic, and that it is adding significantly to the pressures on school leaders and staff. 

Indeed, some respondents made the point that it is contributing to staff retention problems as a factor in teachers deciding to leave. Some of the messages we received also alluded to the spectre of Ofsted because of the concern that inspectors may latch on to behaviour issues as a reason to downgrade a school.

Several correspondents mentioned parental behaviour. This is also an awkward topic, but it does need to be addressed. Most parents are, of course, polite and supportive, but all too often we hear of parents who do not behave in the way that one would expect of responsible adults, parents who are quick to take the side of their child and are indifferent or hostile to sanctions.

At a time when the education sector is already facing multiple pressures due to lack of sufficient funding, a recruitment and retention crisis, and the shrivelling of so many local support services outside of schools, these added difficulties contribute to the sense that schools are under-appreciated, under-resourced, and – frankly - under siege. 

Where we are now is completely unsustainable.

The government, predictably, has little to offer in the way of anything that is useful. There are, inevitably, behaviour hubs, advisers, and guidance, but little in the way of understanding of what issues are involved in causing this challenging behaviour, much less solutions.

And it is this matter of why this is happening which is the crucial question. There are many theories: the breakdown of normal routines and expectations during the pandemic; the rising tide of poor mental health and poverty; the insufficiency of resources to address special educational needs; the pernicious impact of social media, harmful digital content and the addictive nature of smartphone technology; long waiting times for mental health support and the erosion of local support services; the general toxicity of our public discourse.

These may all play a part to a lesser or greater extent, but the truth is that we just don’t know, and it is hard to find a solution without developing a sharper understanding of exactly what is going on. This cannot be done at the level of individual schools or trusts, but it is something that the Department for Education could do which would actually be useful. 

Of even more help would be a commitment to provide the action and investment required to provide solutions. 

I strongly suspect that this would entail more resources for in-school pastoral and specialist support, action to reduce waiting times for mental health care, and regulation of social media sites (the Online Safety Bill is still plodding its way through parliament). 

In the meantime, here is yet another case of schools and colleges being left to pick up the pieces of a series of complex societal issues which require a coordinated response, and all with the shadow of Ofsted looming over them ready to put the blame on them. 

Something has to be done. Because at this rate – not wanting to overstate things - there won’t be anybody left in teaching.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.

Posted: 28/04/2023 10:43:52