Behaviour and why life is better offline

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

A deputy headteacher emailed me this week and said: “Geoff, could you please lobby the government for a new national strategy – one designed to make young people nice again”.

It was a message written in jest, of course, but also making a serious point, and one which resonates with more of the teachers and leaders I talk to. Because in a society where everyone seems to be cross about everything all the time, some trends are showing up within our schools and colleges. 

Attitudes and behaviours of some young people have changed post-Covid. Attitudes and behaviours of some parents have too. 

And in particular, some of the things we once took for granted – the protocols, the social contract between school and parent, the sense simply of being nice to one another – these have begun to fray.

Reassuringly, this isn’t new. In the late 1940s there was an outcry about teenage delinquency. In the 1960s there was a deep concern about a rebellious ‘youth quake’, defined by its anti-establishment fashion and musical tastes, and stories of unexpected levels of defiance by some grammar school students. 

These patterns seem to come and go, reflecting the turbulence of wider society.

And now, from so many school and college leaders, what I hear is that something has changed again. The old rhythms, routines and expectations of the way our institutions were run are no longer always working.

And because you are leaders – aka control freaks – there’s something deeply unnerving about those shifting societal sands. They can leave us feeling undermined, even those of us who are education’s veterans.

So, as we head into a half term, let’s regain perspective and offer some solutions. 

First, when we talk about disruptive behaviour we’re always talking about a minority of offenders. Let’s celebrate more than ever the young people who are exemplifying the kind of behaviour we would hope to see in future citizens. Frankly, the majority of our young people are doing fine and, in due course, will take their place as responsible citizens. Let’s keep noticing and celebrating them being good.

Second, let’s accept that things are undoubtedly changing, and we will need to adapt what we have always done. As Doug Lemov et al says in his book Reconnect:

The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers' lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. It's harder to strike up a casual conversation in the cafeteria or after class when everyone is staring down at a phone. It’s harder to have a deep conversation when each party is interrupted randomly by buzzing, vibrating ‘notifications’. As psychologist Sherry Turkle says, we are all now ‘forever else-where’.”

In education it means that being a young person today is different from being a young person when we were young. Social media means there’s little escape from everyone else’s perceptions of who we are. We are defined by our number of friends or likes or anodyne thumbs-up. We seem forever distracted.

All the more reason, therefore, that those routines we used to take for granted – why we have uniform expectations, why there are rules about when to go to the toilets, why we insist on promptness and courtesy – probably need to us to make the ‘why’ of these patterns of school life more explicit. They aren’t rules for the sake of it; they are designed to help us be able to get along with each other better.

And then there’s parents. Bringing up a child has never been easy, but now it’s a mission of labyrinthine complexity. When do you let your child have a smartphone? How do you ensure your child gets sufficient sleep? How do you ensure that conversations regularly happen at home, rather than gazing at screens?

A government that was braver would recognise that many parents crave guidance on what bringing up a child at this point in time means. They would be less squeamish about helping parents to know how to set boundaries at home, how to give their child the best start in life, how to work with school even when things go wrong.

And they would insist that institutions such as Ofsted, the Department for Education and Ofqual would never accept a parental complaint about a school unless the parent could demonstrate that they had followed due process – that is, using the school or college’s own complaints procedure rather than immediately raising the stakes.

None of which is to denigrate young people or parents and carers. It’s about helping to align the work of schools and colleges with a world that is shifting rapidly around us. 

Because something is definitely happening. As Melissa Niles, a student at the University of California, says in Jean Twenge’s brilliant book iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us:
Technology is slowly ruining the quality of social interaction that we all need as human beings. So what are we doing with 3000 friends on the Internet? Why are we texting all the time? Let's spend more time together with our friends. Let's make the relationships that count last, and not rely on technology to do the job for us. Life is better offline, and even iGen young people know it.

If you’ve been worrying about issues of behaviour, you’re not alone. It’s a common theme across the UK, and probably beyond. It’s not of your making, and it’s happened before.

So, if you’ve got a half-term break of some sort coming up, remember: “Life is better offline.” Go and enjoy your time in the real world. 

And our thanks for the extraordinary work you and your whole staff teams are doing in these most challenging of times. Others may not praise your impact, your resilience, your determination to keep the show on the road. 

Others may not notice it. But we do. 

Look after yourself.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary

Posted: 26/05/2023 11:46:55