Living independently.


A couple of summers ago I visited the friend of a friend who, of course, became a friend. She lived in the Canadian wilderness about as off grid as it is possible to be. Her home, shared with her boyfriend and a couple of dogs, was a converted American school bus. Power was solar. A wood-burning stove heated their cosy home. They grew their own vegetables in a patch and sometimes hunted for food; the skull of a bear grinned from a counter in their kitchen. They had part time jobs to bring in some money, but were as close to self-sufficient as I’ve ever known anyone. In their spare time they were working on building their own ‘tiny home’, which would offer them a few luxuries the bus could not.

I’ve been thinking about my friend quite a lot recently. I’ve been thinking about her because of a phrase used in the, awful, frightening meeting when my wife and I were first told that our daughter had the genetic condition Williams Syndrome. The phrase was “she may or may not be able to live independently,” in a context in which it was clear we were being asked to come to terms with the fact she probably never would.

“May not be able to live independently.” A phrase that swung like a wrecking ball through all the selfish, egotistical constructs of how I’d envisaged Bessie’s life to be. Festering, swelling and growing, ‘never live independently’ played on my mind for weeks.

Never have a home of her own. Never have a job. Never go out without someone watching her. Never choose her clothes. Never. Never. Forever never.

Then, knowing I couldn’t go through my life hiding from a fear that was assuming more power because I wasn’t facing it, I took a metaphorical deep breath, took off my sunglasses and looked into the sun.

And when I did my friend, Katy of the bus, appeared in the light. Living independently.

Or was she? She still had a job to earn money. She had friends and family who visited her, and was surrounded by a community that shared their produce, expertise and the warmth of fellowship. No. She was not really independent.

If she wasn’t independent then how much less independent are the rest of us, really? I eat food I did not grow. I drive to work in a car that I cannot fix, on roads I did not build. I live in a house constructed three centuries ago by someone I never knew. I had an education that I did not pay for.

These, of course, aren’t even the most important things. My emotional life is held together by bonds of blood and friendship. I am defined by my relationships. I am who I am because I am a husband, a son, a brother, a cousin, an uncle, an in-law, a friend and now a father. Sometimes I need support and love and sometimes my role is to give it. Our needs, all of us bound together, will shift. When I was a baby I was totally dependent on my parents. When they become elderly they may become dependent on me.

We are not islands. We are archipelagos connected by strong bridges, and it is those bridges that make us what we are. If living independently was even possible who would want to?

Already my daughter is spinning her web and strengthening our bonds, pulling ties to bring us closer and closer together. My parents are moving to live close by so they can share our journey. We don’t know how much help, or even what kind of help, she’ll need as she grows up and eventually matures but we already know we’ll be delighted to give it. We know she’ll help us too, giving us meaning, purpose and a profound sense of life’s value. We know she’ll make contributions we can’t even understand yet, both practical and emotional. We also know that in terms of what she will do, we know as little as any other parents and her potential is as limitless as any child’s. She may indeed have her own flat and a meaningful vocation. Or she may not. However things turn out the world is unimaginable without her.

My daughter will never live independently. The thought she ever could is absurd. Nor will I, nor will my wife, nor will our families and nor will our friends. We don’t want to because it means living alone. Instead we will live as a community, helping and supporting each other, spokes of a spiderweb that’s strong because it is bound to itself.

And it actually turns out even Katy doesn’t want to live as independently either, not now she’s had her first child. She’s moved that tiny home hundreds of miles through mountains, forests and over rivers to a field close by her boyfriend’s parents, so they can help. They are thrilled, and so is everyone who knows them.

It’s turned out that the light of the sun wasn’t blinding at all. Light illuminates and I was wrong to waste time hiding from the truth in the shade.

Nobody lives independently. We are all connected.


What should I do if my school’s behaviour strategy doesn’t work?

There are many schools with effective behaviour strategies and these can be found in all types of area. This happens when schools genuinely believes its children are capable of behaving well and respects them enough to afford them a sense of agency and control over their own decisions. When a school lacks this belief, for whatever reason, systems fail because those responsible for upholding them feel they have no choice but to make unofficial ad hoc adjustments.

Working out whether or not a school has a working behaviour policy is possible before appointment. Before applying for a job ask for a copy of the school’s policy and visit the school to observe some lessons. Don’t just look for good behaviour as this could be the result of a particular teacher or the status of the person showing you round, but instead look to see how closely the teachers you observe are using the policy. If they are not it is likely the system isn’t used, if they are using it, the chances are the system is effective. If there are no examples of misbehaviour ask to see a lesson in which the system is likely to be used.

The lack of a functioning policy is not necessarily a reason not to apply to a school. In some contexts, particularly those in which children are taught to behave appropriately at home, schools can get by quite well without one because the children in it already have high standards of personal behaviour. However in more challenging contexts the lack of a working policy can be a source of enormous unhappiness, particularly if blame for the ensuing bad behaviour is placed on teachers. Schools like this, from a purely teacher centred perspective, are best avoided it if can be helped.

That said, even in the most challenging of contexts it is possible, albeit extremely difficult, to create an orderly and purposeful classroom even without a functioning whole-school behaviour policy. However, before going giving any suggestions on how to do this it is very important to understand the risks.

It is difficult for anyone who has never experienced what it is like to teach in a school in which bad behaviour is the norm to appreciate just how bad it can get. When there is no respect for authority children can be shockingly rude and brutal to both each other and their teachers. When this happens, it is difficult for even the most stable, balanced and naturally patient person to remain calm and act in a reasoned fashion. Working day-to-day in such environments can cause misery and damage health. It is also possible for teachers to be pushed so hard, even if this is just down to the steady drip-drip of day-in-day-out disobedience, that they act in unprofessional ways, or are accused of such behaviour even when it is not true by children who have no respect for the adults responsible for them.

This has ended the careers of some teachers and even when it doesn’t, the effects can be truly awful.

If teachers do nothing else to prepare for working in such a school, they should make sure they are a member of a union.

This may come across as really negative and I certainly don’t mean that teachers should avoid the schools in which they are most needed. However, teachers who do go into such schools should do so with their eyes open. It is very easy,  driven by the same idealism used to recruit teachers into the profession, to make naïve choices based on inaccurate assumptions and deeply regret it later, sometimes to the extent of leaving teaching altogether

For teachers already working in such environments and unwilling or unable to move, or for those who accept the risks in working at challenging schools with non-functional behaviour systems but feel compelled to nonetheless, the following suggestions might be helpful. Before implementing any of them though it is vital that first, as has already been said, to be sure the school’s system is beyond redemption. Teachers working with a good behaviour policy and support of their colleagues and SLT are lucky, and they should not undermine it by going alone even if it as no negative repercussions for them personally. It is easy to build affection and respect with students in the short term by ignoring policy and revelling in a sort of rebel status. To do so is a failure of professional duty because it is an implied criticism of those who do. Even if a system is dysfunctional it would be unprofessional to act independently unless concerns have been shared with leadership, who have the right to respond. Ideally, such a conversation would be the starting point for the establishment of a working policy. Only when this has been done and concerns have been dismissed or ignored should teachers consider taking matters into their own hands. Even then teachers should not be clandestine and should be open about what they do in their classroom. However justified teachers may feel in doing so, it is unprofessional to be dishonest by claiming they are following a policy when really they are not.

Teachers in contexts in which there is no, or a demonstrably ineffective, whole school behaviour policy might begin by accepting they will need to create a tight classroom system that, as much as is possible in their context, avoids the mistakes discussed in part one of this blog. Although this always tough it is usually easier if you are new to the group. If you are not and are trying to turn round an existing negative climate then be explicit with the class this is what you are doing, because their behaviour is too poor for them to learn anything.

Introducing a long list of rules and expectations is usually a mistake because it may overload children, who may also be so used to this sort of thing they won’t take any notice. Better is to introduce a limited number of clear high leverage rules, for example, ‘nobody talks when I do’, explain the reason for them (‘because you’re here to learn and if you talk while I do, you won’t), and then focus on these. Once these have been embedded, more rules can be gradually introduced. If children fail to respect the first rules, enlisting the help of another teacher the class respect to help communicate and enforce these in the early stages might be wise. If you do choose to do this, make it clear to the class that the extra member of staff is present by your considered and measured invitation to avoid making it look like you have ‘called daddy’ because you can’t cope.

Consequences for breaking any rule should be clear and the same every time, for example, “I’ll give a three second count every time I want to speak. If you talk after this you get a ten minutes after school. If you do it twice, twenty minutes.” Giving students ‘warnings’ is often counterproductive, especially in environments in which children are used to breaking rules with relative impunity and really shouldn’t be necessary if rules and consequences have been clearly explained.

Teachers doing this should be emotionally and logistically prepared for a great deal of kick-back in the early stages. If you know that you are going to have to focus on turning behaviour around make this intentional and do not worry too much about not getting through any specified amount of content. Remember that if a class isn’t concentrating properly just superficially skimming through some basic tasks does not mean anything has been learned. Particularly difficult classes may well break any new rules on mass in order to try and overload your system. It is absolutely imperative that no matter what the provocation you do not compromise or lose your temper. Children in chaotic schools are used to this and will think they have broken you. Instead, remain calm and make a note of every child who breaks a rule and how many times they did without making a scene of doing so. At this stage it may even be wise to ignore other offences other than your priorities unless, of course, they are dangerous. Remember that, although children may say really hurtful things, this behaviour is not personal; it is an attack on authority and your position as a teacher in general.

Then, after the lesson, follow up.

This will be logistically difficult and emotionally exhausting, certainly in the early stages. It is best to accept and plan for this. Eat well, get enough sleep and exercise. As tempting as it might be to unwind with a drink in the evenings be aware of the emotional affect alcohol may have on you and never go to school hungover. Being on edge, for whatever reason, will make it much harder to respond consistently and purposefully to behavioural challenges. Avoid talking about what is going on at school too much once you leave the building. While venting can feel like it’s doing some good at the time it actually makes it harder to unwind and can make it hard to keep a sense of proportion, which can then affect the way you teach.

Above all else, marking, planning, making resources or whatever, do absolutely everything in your power to make sure that sanctions you decided on are implemented for every child. Use Form Tutors, Heads of Department and Heads of Year. Phone home. Ask Form Tutors, Heads of Department and Heads of Year to phone home too. Make sure the focus of all communications is focused on the logistics of applying your sanction and not the reasons for the bad behaviour. Do not justify decisions you have made beyond what you told the child and, at all costs, avoid getting into blow-by-blow post-mortems from which you will only emerge weaker. You will in all likelihood not be able to get every child to accept sanctions immediately but usually you often don’t need to. If you can create a critical mass of compliance then those refusing become marginalised and, while they may still be problematic in your lessons, it will be much more difficult for them to suck others into misbehaviour. This is not, of course, an ideal situation but in schools without functioning behaviour systems it might be the best you can achieve and certainly an improvement.

Do not fall into the trap, especially in the early stages, of making detentions impromptu, amateur restorative justice sessions, or use them as opportunities to build relationships through informal chat. They should be punishments. A fifteen minute silent detention is much more effective than an hour that feels like a youth club and runs the risk of undermining your authority. If the child refuses to comply with the conditions of a detention by, for example, arguing with you or eating in it then send them home and chase up the next day. Whatever is said remain calm and show confidence, even when you don’t have it, that in the end the child will have to comply.

In lessons do not bring up outstanding sanctions, refuse to discuss them, and treat each as a fresh start with the same rules you always have. If a child  refuses to accept a sanction by, for example, telling you explicitly that ‘I never do detentions and I’m not going to do this one’ then tell a superior and suggest the child be excluded from your lessons until they have completed your sanction. If they are reluctant to give you permission to do this, ask politely for alternative suggestions and word objections as questions rather than statements. Use inclusive language to make it clear you regard yourself as part of a team by, for example, saying “if we let Curtis back in when he’s told other children he won’t do my detention what will the rest of the class think?”

Rewards, judiciously and appropriately awarded, can also be useful. In whatever form they take these should be for examples of genuine achievement and not for meeting basic behavioural expectations. Giving a child a merit for staying in their chair for a whole lesson can very easily create the impression that you think this is significant achievement and makes it harder for a teacher to sanction classroom wandering later on. It is also creates issues in managing a group holistically; if one pupil gets a reward for remembering not to shout out or for keeping hands to himself, then others may feel understandably aggrieved they do not. Rewards should always be for completing work to a high standard or for learning behaviour that demonstrate real commitment. In most settings, are best used to manage bad conduct with rewards reserved for work completed as a result of good behaviour, not for the behaviour in itself. Rewards should be rare enough to feel genuinely significant. Finally, at all costs avoid giving out bribes; while handing out sweets or other trinkets for good behaviour may seem initially impactful, such desperate steps almost always backfire later on as children come to expect them. Even if such a strategy could be justified in utilitarian terms, there are ethical issues; for example, some parents may not want their child to eat sweets and by giving them out we undermine parenting, which isn’t fair.

Efforts are more likely to be successful if you can convince others in your department, corridor or block to agree to adopt your approach too. Even buddying up with the teacher of a completely different subject in a different area of the school can help if you teach the same children. While all teachers doing the same thing is the ideal, even a few can help create a feeling of consistency. If you decide to do this, be explicit about it to your classes so they know what is coming, by saying something like ‘you’re going to notice that Mrs Turner and I are doing things the same way from now on.”

Sadly, all this effort, does not guarantee success and at some point there may be no alternative but to accept defeat. Factors outside a teacher’s control, including school philosophy and policy, class changes and wider staff turnover can all doom the most careful plan to failure. Personal circumstances can also have an impact. Going it alone when the environment is not conducive can be both physically and emotionally exhausting and, issues at home, such as new baby or relationship difficulties, can make it just too much. If, for whatever reason, it become clear that there has been no improvement it is better to be proud that you tried and look for work elsewhere. Not doing so can, even to the most positive of people, lead to a loss of faith that certain groups of children can behave well at all and a general lowering of expectations. This pernicious belief can be very hard to shift once it has got hold. Don’t let it and don’t lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of children are capable of being polite, industrious and hardworking, and are happier in contexts where this is expected.

There is no shame in leaving an impossible situation and no medals for martyring yourself. Teachers aren’t social workers, prison guards, fire-fighters, nightclub bouncers, entertainers or police officers and those that find they have to play one of these roles regularly in their work should not be judged for making the professional decision to move to a place where they can just do their job. There are plenty of schools, in all types of area, in which children behave well and want to learn. It is perfectly acceptable to want to teach in one.


Why do school behaviour strategies fail?


“Taylor, that’s a warning, I’m putting your name on the board. Jamal I know you talked while I was writing Taylor’s warning on the board so your name is going on the board too. Yes, Jamal, I know Stacey talked too so I’ll write her name on the board beneath yours. Stacey, that’s a C2 for swearing at Jamal for telling me you talked. Phillipa, I know that swearing is a C3 but I’m the teacher so I decide. Yes, Taylor, I agree everyone is talking now. Class, you are all on a warning now and Taylor, Jamal and Stacey you are now all on a C2. Martha, stop arguing with me or you’ll get a detention. Right, Martha you have a detention and I’m writing up a C4 on the board for you now. Shut up everyone I know she didn’t get a warning but she shouldn’t have argued. Anyone who talks from now on gets a detention. Right, that’s it, whole class detention after school tomorrow. Anyone who doesn’t come will get two hours.”

Of course, this is not supposed to happen. The whole point of school behaviour strategies is to avoid fiascos like this one. One of the first documents given to new staff, they usually seem sensible and clear, and are reassuring to less experienced teachers understandably anxious about bad behaviour. Typically they offer a graduated hierarchy of rewards and sanctions which, if followed consistently, should create a smooth, stress-free classroom in which learning flourishes.

Unfortunately they very often deliver far less than they promise and inexperienced teacher can often find using their school’s system causes more problems than it solves. On asking for help they are typically told the system is sound and any issue is in their implementation. Common criticisms are that not enough positive points are being handed out, or that they are issuing too many sanctions. New and nearly new teachers, who lack the experience to question what they are taught by more senior colleagues believe this and spend time and energy trying to become fully compliant with their school’s policy. If the policy is indeed robust this can work well but, as is often the case, it is in itself actually defective then such changes to practice just lead to further inconsistency and disruption.

In part one of this post I would like to discuss why so many apparently sensible and well thought out positive behaviour policies are actually inherently flawed before, tomorrow, going on to what teachers can do when they find themselves working in places with ineffective strategies. This post, when fully developed and revised, will be one of the chapters of a book I’m writing on how rank-and-file teachers can be most effective when working in flawed contexts.

Before working out why any strategy might not be working it is first fair to make sure the problem is with the system and not you. Some clear indicators that the problem might lie close to home would be that everyone else in the school is using it faithfully, and that levels of reward and sanction are pretty consistent between teachers. It might also be worth checking that you are issuing the higher sanctions (e. g detentions), as often solid systems fall apart if children learn their teacher is reluctant, for whatever reason, to hand these out when behaviour clearly warrants it. In schools where behaviour systems operate effectively senior leadership probably will not be concerned about the number of sanctions you issue and will not aggressively question you over why you thought these necessary.

If you discover that, by and large, your colleagues are using the school system and have no complaints about it, then you should face the possibility you could be the weak link in the chain and even a reason others are struggling to apply it. Teachers who are not following the system because they do not know how, or are scared to, should ask for help. Those who don’t because they are ideologically opposed to its principles should bring this up openly and may wish to move jobs if differences are not professionally reconcilable. Those teachers who choose not to follow strong systems because the force of their personalities, seniority of position or the length of their tenure at the school do their colleagues a disservice. By refusing to follow a sensible system those that feel they do not need they undermine and weaken it for everyone else; if children never get detentions from a popular teacher for an infringement that deserves one, they will judge a teacher who gives them one as unjust and will argue.

That SLTs often claim any disciplinary problems in their school are the result of poor implementation of good systems is not surprising. Admitting otherwise means admitting bad policy, which calls into question the competence of general leadership and management. This is why school leadership can be reluctant to accept criticism of the school’s behaviour policy. It is far easier to blame those lower down the hierarchy for not doing it right than it is to accept that problems are with what teachers are being asked to do in the first place.  This issue is compounded by the fact children are far more likely to comply with a policy if it is being implemented by a senior member of staff with the clout to make their life immediately unpleasant. This makes it easy for SLT to believe the system is effective and that any problems must be down to failure of those lower in the pecking order to apply it properly. Less senior staff are also unlikely to, at least publicly, admit that they think the strategy is flawed because this can be taken as open criticism of their managers, which might cause them professional problems. More common is to pay lip-service to the strategy while quietly muddling along alone and using individual approaches to varying degrees of success. If levels of reward and sanction vary wildly between different teachers, or the least well-behaved children seem to be accumulating very high proportions of rewards, it is likely that the school’s strategy is not really working and may well be conceptually flawed for one or more of the following reasons.

  1. The strategy is not as clear as it seems.

While a strategy may seem clear on paper, practice often reveals it to be far more ambiguous than it first appears. For example, a school’s strategy may say that a student receives a first warning for ‘Not listening to class instructions.” On the face of it this is logical. A teacher is explaining a task and if a child is not listening properly they issue a warning. The child then listens to the instructions. All is well.

Those with any familiarity with the inside of a classroom will probably already have spotted the issues here. How do we know if the child was listening or not? Being quiet does not mean they were listening. Nor does facing the teacher and nor does writing the date and title in an exercise book. Doodling on a piece of paper or pencil case does not mean the child is completely inattentive. So how do we prove the child was not listening if, as they may do, they argue back? Already, at the very lowest level, the apparently clear system is beginning to come undone.

An example of a higher level infraction demanding a proportionally more severe response might be ‘speaking in a disrespectful way to another child’. Here, problems with interpretation are likely to make this apparently sensible rule a nightmare to enforce. Is the good-natured ribbing of a friend by calling him an idiot for dropping his pen a ‘disrespectful act’ worthy of a sanction? What about if a one girl calls her neighbour a ‘retard’ and her neighbour says she doesn’t mind? What about shouting ‘retard’ out of the window at a boy with Cerebral Palsy as he leaves another classroom early for his lunch? Does that warrant just a second level sanction for a ‘disrespectful act’? We may well have a very clear view on all of these, but this view might not be shared with our pupils and even when it is, children can be extremely skilled at manipulating this apparent ambiguity to their own advantage, by arguing their teacher has made a mistake interpreting the rule. Furthermore, no strategy can ever possibly include all misdeeds (although attempting to write one could be lots of fun), which further adds to a sense of uncertainty and confusion when infringements not explicitly identified on the policy occur.

Teachers who find themselves agonising over their school’s behaviour strategy poster or document trying to decide whether or not something deserved a C2 or a C3 are almost certainly wasting their time. The problem is most likely with the system.

  1. Strategies are written under the assumption that students will accept the sanctions they are given.

When a school behaviour strategy is working properly children do not argue back. If children are disputing sanctions in a lesson it means there is a chance it will be overturned, or that a further sanction for arguing is not enough of a disincentive. School behaviour strategies seem to always assume that incidents of bad behaviour are relatively isolated, happen in the context of order and that children will accept their teacher’s decision. If this isn’t actually the case then trying to apply the strategy can cause complete chaos as constant arguing causes so many further infringements dealing with them becomes impossible and any semblance of order collapses under the sheer volume of disruption. In such environments, where teachers feel they have to justify their decisions, this to-and-fro undermines credibility and encourages children to see elements of the policy as negotiable. School behaviour strategies can only ever keep order. They cannot create it in the first place. If a school tolerates a culture of generally bad conduct, no classroom strategy will make behaviour better and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous and unfair.

  1. Nobody monitors the consistency of rewards and sanctions.

In some schools, while raw numbers of rewards and sanctions may be recorded and perhaps even analysed for patterns, little attention is paid to what they are given for. One teacher may issue a merit for completing all the work they set, while another may not because they regard this as a basic expectation undeserving of special reward. Similarly, one teacher may prefer to deal with shouting out by giving reminders or warnings, while another may immediately issue a demerit and associated detention for the same offence. While the inconsistency may be partly the result of vague language that allows multiple interpretations of the same act, even when policy is sufficiently explicit this can still happen if leadership takes a laissez faire attitude towards how their teachers apply it. If schools place importance on only the numbers of rewards and sanctions and not what these are being given for, the inconsistency will cause any whole-school behaviour system to fragment with each teacher effectively working alone. In such instances it would actually be better if schools didn’t bother with a pretence at a holistic approach at all, because the visible failure to enforce any uniformity undermines the perceived competence of the school as a whole.

  1. Behaviour is viewed as a symptom of teaching quality.

Some of the schools which don’t monitor why teachers issue rewards and sanctions place emphasis on the numbers of each handed out instead. It is quite common for the number of reward points to be read out publicly in briefings with departments and the individual teachers who give out the most being praised and those who hand out fewer shamed by association. This sort of foolishness, in addition to being infantile and unprofessional, is enormously damaging because it creates the impression that good teachers give lots of reward points and bad ones do not, which can make issuing them an end in itself. This impression is reinforced by schools in which teachers issuing comparatively high numbers of sanctions are asked to explain this regardless of what these sanctions are issued for, which leads to teachers becoming reluctant to punish students who deserve it because of the effect this will have on the way in which they are regarded by their colleagues and leadership. In such environments, teachers feel encouraged to hand out lots of rewards, deserved or not, because they feel this is a good way of proving their competence. This creates an arms race in which teachers have to award more and more to outperform each other. The effect of this hyperinflation, well explained by Doug Lemov in “throwing scholar dollars” in Teach Like A Champion, is the devaluation of the rewards altogether. This may well also help explain why it is common for a school’s most disruptive students to receive comparatively high proportions of rewards; if a good teacher gives lots of rewards, what could be stronger evidence of competence than giving them to typically badly behaved children?

Another sign that behaviour is viewed as an output of the quality of teaching is when a school emphasises engagement or even enjoyment for its own sake. When this happens poor behaviour, rather than being blamed on problems with the policy or choices made by children, is attributed to the failure of teachers to adequately keep and retain the attention of their pupils. Schools that believe this while operating positive behaviour strategies are, at best, conflicted because if poor conduct can be even partly explained by the standard of teaching it is a very small step to excusing it for the same reason, which makes the consistent application of any system an irrelevance. Teachers working in cultures like this often become afraid to log sanctions because they know this reflects badly on them, and that they may not be supported in applying them because they are more likely to be regarded as at fault than the child is.

When this happens the result is, at best, the erosion or, at worst, the total destruction of the system’s credibility.

Leaders that allow this to happen are not taking responsibility for the behaviour of children in their schools. It would be more honest, and fairer on everyone, to just say they see managing behaviour as the job of individual teachers and drop any pretence there is a whole-school system. This would at least allow teachers more agency and eliminate some meaningless, time sapping bureaucracy.

There is no half-way house; there is either a policy that everyone follows or there isn’t one at all and it is every teacher for themselves.

  1. The administrative burden of following up on sanctions is so overwhelming and demoralising teachers don’t do it.

In some schools the logging and implementation of sanctions is so byzantine it seems intentionally off-putting. Just finding a student on the schools database and entering a description of an incident, which can very much feel like a defensive justification for punishment in hostile contexts, can take a few minutes. This doesn’t sound a lot but if, say, five students have misbehaved, the time soon adds up. If even three students misbehave in five lessons, the time spent entering the incidents is enough to be off putting, especially if there isn’t certainty this will have any effect. It is also worth noting what a demoralising and unpleasant task this is, made even less attractive if the teacher feels there is a chance they will be judged harshly for a perceived inability to control the pupils involved.

Following up on an incident often only begins with logging it. Teachers in many schools are expected to run their own detentions, which requires them to give up their time, which affects energy levels and morale. If, as is often the case, children choose not to attend a detention the cycle begins again, with the teacher expected to log the failure to attend as a whole new incident. It is very common for some pupils to build up so many sanctions, even for comparatively low level offences, that there is simply not enough time for them to ever clear their backlog. This can happen especially quickly in schools which direct teachers to a high volume of meetings, training or to teach interventions after school because there simply aren’t enough slots to run detentions in. Senior Leaders, perhaps understandably at a loss as to what to do, can end up downgrading sanctions, sometimes using the teacher’s failure to adhere prescriptive and exhaustive tick-list as an excuse. For example, if a policy says that teachers are expected to write to parents to tell them about a missed detention before setting another and they do not do this, or do but forget to log a record that they have, the sanction may be postponed or even cancelled. Finally, very big backlogs may be cancelled at the end of term in order to give whole groups of children ‘a fresh start’.

Following procedure can very quickly become an end in itself. Teachers may be told, for example, that before a certain sanction can be considered they must make a phone call home and log it, regardless of how many times that year the parents have been called already, and regardless of how ineffective this has been up to that point.

In such schools a general lethargy often emerges and new appointees can be utterly baffled by unwritten rules that may directly contradict those on the official policy. A school rule may say clearly that any swearing results in an automatic detention but those who have been at the school for any length of time may know this is never applied and that any teacher who tries is viewed as a pedantic jobsworth.

Teachers working in schools like this can be forgiven for becoming so exhausted and demoralised that they stop issuing or logging sanctions at all. It is possible in some schools this is part of the point as it allows the pleasant narrative that behaviour is improving whether or not this is really true. Intentional or not, the result is the same. It does not take children long to work out the policy displayed on the posters in their classrooms is a fiction. Some will resent this because they see their classmates getting away with murder and spoiling things for them. Others, quite predictably, have enormous fun taking full advantage.

  1. Strong teachers and those with more influence choose not to use the system.

Even when a school’s behaviour policy is sensible in principle it can still fail. If a behaviour policy is to work properly, everyone must use it. In some schools stronger teachers, or those with more influence such as members of SLT, do not use the system because they feel they do not need to. This is understandable; if a teacher can teach well without using a superfluous layer of bureaucracy why not let them? This, theoretically, saves time and allows more autonomy for those who have earned it.

The problem here is the way in which this affects the way in which teachers are seen by their students. If the strongest, most important teachers do not use the policy, teachers who do are perceived as weaker and less important by association. This can easily lead to children behaving very differently depending on who is teaching them. This is effect is emphasised when punishments vary according to the relative status of teachers in the school hierarchy. When this happens behaviour will be more the result of complex and variable power dynamics than it will be consistency within a planned system. In an unfortunate and cruel irony, this also means that those least equipped to deal with bad behaviour, for example NQTS and supply teachers, tend to be those most often subjected to it.

It is deeply unfair and unhelpful to ascribe a member of staff’s struggles with student behaviour to their failure to implement the policy if the school’s most respected teachers are not doing so.

  1. High level sanctions, even when they are explicit on the policy, are very rarely applied.

Most school behaviour policies have permanent exclusion as the ultimate, final sanction. This is typically for a very extreme incident affecting the safety and security of the school, or for many lower level incidents. In schools without an effective behaviour policy it is rare for a child to be excluded for less serious incidents regardless of how many of these there are. Some schools, unwisely if they lack the will or ability to follow through, place an actual figure on the number of behaviour points that should result in a permanent exclusion. While reaching this should result in the end of the road for the student concerned, more common is a sequence of meeting and contracts in which the child is given one of many ‘final’ warnings. The effect of this, on both the child concerned and their compatriots, is to make a mockery of the policy and the school by association. Lion taming only works if the keepers convince the lions they are more dangerous than they really are. If this illusion is shattered they find themselves in great danger. The same is true of threatening children with sanctions that cannot be enforced; once students realise the school is effectively powerless they become unaccountable to anyone but themselves. If they have high standards of personal behaviour this is unlikely to have really serious consequences but if they do not, the consequences can be very severe indeed.

  1. So many children end up with sanctions that they become normalised and stop being a disincentive.

A common strategy adopted by schools who wish to signal they are getting tough on behaviour is to introduce a strict new set of rules and then issue all students in breach of these rules with a planned sanction. For example, a school may decide on a new uniform and place all children who refuse to wear it in isolation, or even send them home. Or, a school may be decide to be more vigilant on homework and assign children who do not do it a detention for each unfinished piece. In the short term this may result in a very high number of children being sanctioned, which can place a schools administrative capacity under great strain. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this and if such deterrents work in reducing the undesirable behaviour then, unless they are in some way unethical, they may be worth the effort required to implement them. Problems only occur if the number of sanctions never declines because when this happens, in addition to the problems caused by the extra workload, they are normalised and cease to be a meaningful disincentive. This is even more likely to happen when students think sanctions are unfair or pointless. For example, if a school is issuing detentions for not completing homework, but does nothing about the many pupils who just copy work in order to avoid the sanction, the system will lack the credibility required to be accepted as necessary.

It is even possible for children to develop learned helplessness as they come to believe sanctions are handed out randomly and that they have no control over whether they are punished or not. This fatalism is incompatible with the sense of responsibility and agency students need to be inspired into making good choices and dooms policies to failure.

  1. Allowances are made for some children and the reasons for these allowances are not understood or accepted by others,

The degree to which school behaviour strategies should be no excuses policies, is one of the most controversial questions in education and this isn’t the right place to get into the debate. It’s enough to say that any exceptions to the general rule, if there are any, should indeed be exceptional. If they are not, and lots of children visibly break rules without consequence while other children are punished for the same acts, students will perceive the system as unfair and will not respect it.

This can affect teachers just as much. A school may, rightly or wrongly, ascribe specific Special Educational Needs to some students. For example, a child may be diagnosed as having behavioural or emotional difficulties which require time outside the classroom to calm down after being given a sanction. If teachers agree this is necessary then they will apply this alteration to the general policy diligently, but if they believe the diagnosis to be unsafe or just an excuse for deliberately making poor choices, their irritation in having to do so is likely to affect their implementation.

An effective behaviour policy which allows exceptions requires that children and teachers understand there are good reasons for these, and to have faith they are necessary even when confidentiality agreements mean there isn’t an explanation. This is a difficult culture to create, but those schools that do not risk resentment and subversion.

Depressing so far, I know. In my next post I hope to be more positive.



A different sort of blog. A different sort of daughter.


I have been trying to decide whether to post blogs about my daughter on this site or start a new one. For a while I thought it best to separate my writing about Bessie from my writing on teaching because the content is going to be very different but, after a fair bit of reflection, I have decided to go ahead on this existing page. This is for the same reason that I don’t have two twitter accounts, one personal and one professional; I am one person and dividing things into compartments just doesn’t feel an accurate representation of how I see my life.

If you’re only interested in reading about education fair enough. Stop reading now.

So, deep breath. As some of you reading this already know, about three months ago Bessie was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Williams’ Syndrome (go ahead and google it. It was the first thing we did!), caused by a random microdeletion of a tiny part of her DNA. Williams Syndrome, without getting into it all blow by blow, means that along with some gifts, she is also likely to find lots of things harder than those without her condition.

Coming to terms with the diagnosis has, after an initial truly awful period when the shock and uncertainty made life very tough, been surprisingly easy so far.

Bessie is the same girl she always was and was never anything else. She has, thank God so far, escaped some of the worst health implications of Williams Syndrome and as a family we feel ourselves blessed.

The mental shift has been interesting. I’ve assumed an identity I never expected to have; the father of a child with special needs. A whole world has opened up and what once seemed abstract and unrelatable has become personal and important because I now have a dog (sorry Bessie!) in the fight.

One of the first things I noticed is that a lot of coverage and reaction to people who are different is somewhat infantile in tone. I do understand why and don’t think this happens out of any bad intention; people who learn more slowly than others do come across as more childlike sometimes and the fact they need care can easily lead us to treat them like children even when they aren’t.

Bessie is, of course, still a child (a massively cute one. Probably the cutest in the world) and will be for a long time yet. But I don’t want everything about her to be reduced to ‘cute’, or ‘aw’, or ‘bless’. I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I were watching videos of children with Williams’ Syndrome walking for the first time. On first view, these videos do indeed appear cute; the staggering first steps, the slightly awkward gait and the nervous looks around for reassurance.

But to me it isn’t cute. It is epic.

About a week ago my wonderful, determined and tough daughter crawled for the first time. The video we have of this will, I know, be one I watch forever. You see this isn’t easy for Bessie. It didn’t come as naturally as it does for most others. Her lower muscle tone means it was a fight just to sit up. A fight to roll over. A fight to reach, and grab. It has been frustrating for her. She’s screamed with anger, arched her back, her face screwed up in purple rage. She has wanted so very much to move for so long. For months she sat back on her haunches and rocked frantically, not yet physically ready to lift an arm without collapsing. She’s watched other children her age totter about with an expression which is heart-breaking to watch.

But she didn’t give up. She kept going and the first wobbly forward shuffles we have now captured on video forever are the result of months of determined effort. It is not cute. It is jaw-dropping. It is life affirming. And when she stops half way and screams it is a triumphant roar of primeval joy.

“I am Bessie! I’m on the move!”


Planning a knowledge curriculum.

th (1).jpg

For the first time in my career I am planning a whole five year history curriculum from scratch. This is something of an embarrassing confession to make but I don’t think my experience is that unusual. As I wrote about here a while back, there are lots of reasons this isn’t typical; a lot of the time, for better or worse, what we teach is based on the textbooks we have and what’s on the shared area on our school network. Often incoming Heads of Department inherit schemes of work and staff used to doing things in a certain way, sometimes for good reason and sometimes just because it is what’s always been done. In the face of high workloads and understandable concerns about rocking the boat too much it is very tempting not to reinvent the wheel, especially when we are so well-meaningly and earnestly told we should avoid doing so.

This causes significant issues. Gradual evolution of curriculum and schemes of work seems sensible but can very easily lead to curricular confusion and incoherence. A lesson on Thomas Becket comes to be taught every year simply because it is taught every year with the original purpose and wider meaning of the lesson, if indeed thought was ever given to this, lost years back in the swirling mists of changing strategy and fashion.

The cult of high-stakes, graded one off lesson observations made this worse, with emphasis placed on the quality of what happened in each hour without reference to how this tied into any bigger picture.

For a time I didn’t think this that much of a problem. Lazy thinking on my part, aided by poor training and CPD, had led me to believe that the purpose of history was in the transferrable ‘historical skills’ it taught. The content, be it the feudal system, or Doom paintings, or the agricultural revolution, was only a vehicle used to develop description, explanation, evaluation or inference in my pupils, which meant a patchy, haphazard curriculum wasn’t anything to worry very much about. Why spend time painstakingly curating the knowledge pupils would learn if it wasn’t the point of my subject anyway? Better to produce one off whizbangy lessons that shoved pupils through boring low order recall, past description and explanation and then rocketed them right up to evaluating all within sixty minutes.

Of course, I know now this is nonsense. It is now pretty well accepted in the history community that getting better at history means knowing more of it and that a curriculum pupils do not remember is really no curriculum at all.

So what should go in my curriculum? It is here that I, tentatively, first use the phrase “knowledge rich”. I use this phrase cautiously because I see the danger it may turn into just another jargony buzzterm teachers laugh about in the pub. Indeed, some teachers are laughing already. “Knowledge rich! We’ve always taught knowledge! What do you think we’ve been doing for X years?”

I get it, I do. Not very long ago at all I would have laughed too. Of course I was teaching knowledge! I taught children about Thomas Becket! I taught them about Doom Paintings! I taught them about enclosure!

All knowledge, right?

Well, a bit yes but mainly no. In the earlier years of my career I was teaching my pupils knowledge but to be honest, not much of it and what I did teach was mostly forgotten. How could it not be? We rarely returned to it and because any links to anything else were more accidental than intentional it wasn’t memorable. Pupils forgot most of what I taught them and so, even if it could be argued the curriculum was knowledge rich (which it wasn’t), they ended up knowledge poor. Effectively, my pupils were comets blazing through unknown galaxies with ever diminishing trails behind them.

So with the curriculum I’m planning I’ve been determined not to make this mistake. To be truly knowledge rich we must ensure what is taught sticks and is built upon. If the features of the medieval Church are taught in Year 7 then they must remember them so pupils can understand why John Wycliff criticised it. Pupils then need to remember Wycliff’s criticisms so Martin Luther’s complaints don’t seem to arrive from nowhere. Pupils then have to remember Luther to understand Henry VIII’s justifications for the Reformation. To make sense of what has happened in the past pupils must be able to make connections and cannot be comets. Planning a curriculum that makes it possible for pupils to do this means going down to very, very granular detail and knowing not just what pupils are learning but why, and how this will be built upon later. It means scrolling back and forth between years 7 and 8 deciding when exactly is the right point to introduce them to the concept of ‘revolution’ or ‘franchise’. It means moving topics around so that the sequence is just right.

At this point I find myself backtracking somewhat. In the past, and I still stand by it to a certain extent, I’ve said that we should spend more time thinking and discussing what pupils should learn rather than how. While this is true, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the knowledge curriculum in history has no overlap with delivery methods. For children to learn enough of the past to make any kind of sense then there just isn’t much space for very involved activities that take up a lot of time. Time spent on making castles, posters or organising a mock medieval fair is time that could have been spent more directly teaching pupils more knowledge. More knowledge is important because it is easier to connect the dots when there are lots of them.

For a knowledge curriculum to work properly time must also be spent going back over what has been learned before to make sure that the dots are clearly defined even if they were taught years before. It does, of course, take time but since adopting an unashamedly didactic approach and deliberately reducing my tolerance for disruption it has amazed me just how much more I and my pupils get through.

Of course, no matter how rich a curriculum in history is, decisions have to be made about what to teach. it just isn’t possible for them to learn everything. This is where the importance of topics, framed around areas of genuine historical debate, lies. These overarching questions, which can last a term or more, provide the framework in which the knowledge can sit and, more importantly, assume the meaning which makes it memorable. Failing to have these can result in lots of facts that add up to nothing, demeaning history by making it little more than a glorified pub quiz.

I have enjoyed the work, I really have, more than anything I have done in ages. It feels important. I am proud of myself for doing it.


A building shining with hope. My visit to Nuneaton Academy


One of the frustrations of not living in London is that it can sometimes feel as if far less in education happens anywhere else. This impression, completely untrue of course, is built by the effective and loud schools and academy chains that operate there, and the large number of education events that take place within the M25.

I don’t begrudge London this. Much. But I do think it important that when something exciting happens elsewhere it is highlighted.

A fortnight or so ago I was invited to look round the Nuneaton Academy and came away inspired. It wasn’t the first time this school appeared on my radar. About five years ago and old friend of mine got a medium term cover position there after finishing up a job abroad. It was, he told me, eye-poppingly awful. Behaviour was out of control with no centralised or even departmental system to deal with it. Teachers were left to control the crowds alone in their classrooms and any teaching and learning seemed almost incidental. A newly appointed Head Teacher told an assembly “I will stay at least a year” as if that was something worth shouting about, then didn’t. “Poor kids,” I remember my friend saying, “there’s a generation of them not learning anything.”

A quick look through the school’s Ofsted history makes for some pretty grim reading. There isn’t even one ‘good’ rating on the website.

While nothing at all can excuse this sort of systematic, long term failure it is important to acknowledge that by any measure Nuneaton is a tough place in which to teach. It is a poor, post-industrial, predominantly white British town. These children, demographically, do not do well and the Nuneaton Academy is full of them. Fruit does not fall easily from the tree in places like this.

I hate that schools like this still exist. I hate driving past them when I can’t help but imagine them as black holes, sucking the life out of all in and around them. I hate visualising the stunted lives and the squandered potential, and the wasting of so much time. I hate that it happens in towns near where I live. I hate that it seems to happen to more children outside London than it does to those in it.

And it was because of all this hatred that I drove out of the Nuneaton Academy smiling so widely that when I caught a glimpse of myself in the overhead mirror I forced myself to stop because I actually looked insane.

This school is not failing its pupils.

As soon as I arrived at reception it was clear a lot had changed since my friend had worked there. It was just after the first bell and the Deputy Head, Ann Donaghy, was dealing with two latecomers. There were clear consequences, calmly explained with humour, and accepted by pupils, who were then sent off to wherever they should be with a smile.

In a short meeting the approachable Head, Simon, and Ann, spoke clearly and convincingly about their vision and its practical application, which was visible everywhere I looked in the school on the tour I took later. Ann, by saying that the school was still at the beginning of its journey and that not all behaviour was as they wanted it to be, led me to expect something very different to what I actually saw in lessons; behaviour was largely perfect. Children were focused and the lessons, taught from the front, were meaningful and productive. In the corridors children greeted, Simon, Ann and myself with ‘good morning’ which was returned every time. As a small experiment when left to my own devices for a minute between lessons I said ‘good morning’ to the children who passed me and found that every one responded politely and confidently. This is truly impressive. I have been teaching and leading in schools long enough to know that this sort of culture does not emerge by accident.

The rules were strict and formal and the pupils happy because of them. Classes stood when Simon and Ann came into the room but did this with wide smiles and were genuinely pleased to see them, and keen to show off what they knew when asked to. There was humour and warmth in every room I went in. In one classroom one pupil did not comply with a polite request form her teacher and this was dealt with by Simon, the Head, unobtrusively, calmly and respectfully. If any other pupil noticed what was going on they didn’t show it. In the same lesson I saw an ICT failure of the sort that’s inevitable and watched the class teacher calmly ask Simon for help resolving it, which he did readily and with no fuss at all. This must be a great place in which to work.

Rules, routines and rituals help create the culture in which learning can happen and so I was not surprised to see really high quality teaching and learning.

In a history lesson I was lucky enough to observe I saw a teacher casually use the phrase ‘perpetual suffering’ when teaching a Year 7 class about heaven, hell and purgatory in the medieval period. When I asked the child closest to me what this meant she answered correctly, proudly and in a full sentence. I saw English literature lessons in which knowledge organisers were being used, which had been carefully curated and skilfully formatted to reduce distraction and get pupils focused on the most important aspects.

After the tour, I returned to Simon’s office and looked at the numbers of pupils in each year. Year 11 has less than Year 10, which has less than Year 9, which has less than Year 8. Year 7 has the highest number of pupils. GCSE outcomes are on the up and last year the a pupil at the school achieved a top (9) grade for the very first time. Those familiar with the way schools work will already have spotted the pattern. Quite rightly, the school is becoming more and more popular because it is getting better and better. It is still undersubscribed but it will not stay that way for long.

This is a proper school that knows what it’s doing, doing it in a place where children need a great education more than almost anywhere else. It was a privilege to see and I’ll be watching and cheering  its journey, and that of the Midland Academies Trust of which it is a part, with very close interest. We all, of course, know great things happen all over the country; the Dixons chain in Bradford, the Inspiration MAT in Norfolk and the Huntington School in York are just three examples of places outside London in which things are going very right. I’d encourage anyone who can to learn about and, better, visit them. But there’s something really exciting about seeing something truly wonderful happening in your own local area and that’s what I saw at the Nuneaton Academy.

I’d encourage anyone who can to visit this school to go and see for yourself what I saw; a building shining with hope.


Pushing on


Years ago, although sometimes it seems like yesterday, I helped turn round a school.

The school was an international one and before the arrival of a new management team had endured a torrid time. Poor leadership and management had resulted in rapid staff turnover, demoralisation of the teachers who had stayed, poor and declining exam results, and such deterioration in pupil behaviour that the building did not feel like a school at all. Older pupils chose whether or not to go to lessons and wandered on and off the site at will. Younger children ran riot through the corridors. Bullying, both in and out of school, was common. Many proactive parents had already pulled their children out and many of those who replaced these had been expelled or ‘asked to leave’ other international schools in the area.

When, in his first assembly, the newly appointed Head said his vision was for the school to become the best in the country there was a loud guffaw of laughter from the assembled pupils. Some of the teachers sniggered too.

Not knowing the extent of the problems when I had been hired I was dismayed and considered resigning before I’d even really started. In the end, after meetings with the new Head and other management I didn’t because they convinced me they were serious and had the capability to rescue the foundering ship. My instincts were right. Three years later the school achieved its best ever set of exam results, comparable to schools charging four times as much. Children were proud to go to the school. When the Head, at his last assembly, said he considered the school the best in the country he got a standing ovation.

I am still very close friends with my old Head. He was one of the ushers at my wedding. By co-incidence he lives quite close by and, as often as we can with young families and grown up commitments, we meet up for beers, swap news and revel in old war stories.

Looking back now it seems clear that the turnaround took place in two quite distinct stages. The first was just making the school feel like a school. It involved endless meetings with parents and their children and running hours and hours of centralised detentions. It meant shouting children down from the roof of the toilet block where they were playing tig. It meant contacting embassies to tell them to confiscate mopeds from children whose parents were out of the country on diplomatic business. It meant patrolling corridors and scooping children into lessons and then sitting in them to make sure everyone behaved. It was exhausting but it was actually a lot of fun. Certainty over what needed to be done and being part of a close team committed to following through made the work enormously rewarding, especially as every week the changes in the school were significant and palpable.

It is this stage, that lasted all of the first year and the first half-term of the second, my friend and I talk about most. This is the time we are most nostalgic about.

But it was, of course, only half the battle if that. Exam results at the end of our first year were not radically better than the year before we’d arrived. The children just had too much to catch up on.

My friend and I talk much less about stage two which, in some ways, is odd because this was just as important. These were, in many ways, frustrating years. They were not glamourous. They involved computers and standardised tests. Regular exam periods. Rooming. Systems. Timetabling.  Appraisal. Governor’s meetings and curriculum work late into the night.

What made all of this even more difficult was that there was no immediately obvious reason as to why we were bothering. International Schools are often not accountable for outcomes in the same way English ones are which meant there was little pressure; as far as the school community was concerned problems had been solved and our efforts should now be concentrated on prize-giving ceremonies, shows and other events in which we’d show off and by so doing boost applications.

If we had done this it could have been a cushy couple of years but, and I am proud of this, we didn’t. We realised that to truly get better we needed to change gear. So we did.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently.

As I have written about here, I have fairly recently started at a new school. The school is nothing at all like the Ethiopian International School, being well organised, robust and committed to the betterment of its pupils. My reasons for thinking back so much are more personal.

As I have written about here, I have a pretty well-established routine for how I start with all my new classes. The point of it all is to build the basics; the behaviour and routines that will create the culture in which really meaningful learning can happen. With the majority of my classes and pupils I feel I have got there now .My lessons are now, predominantly, orderly and crisp. Pupils know and respect my rules. They know the procedures and the consistent structure. They get ready quickly and they do their retrieval practise without being asked. They listen when it is someone else’s turn to speak. When it’s time to answer a question in writing they get to it silently and without fussing.

And in all this there is another danger because, of course, as visible as all this is it is only half the battle. My duty as a teacher is to constantly and relentlessly drive improvement and never to settle for where we are as long as there are uplands we have not yet reached. This is obvious but easy to forget too. If my class aren’t orderly, or children aren’t completing enough work this will be quickly picked up, but only I really know if the work I’ve set is as ambitious as it should be. Sometimes it can be tempting to fixate on smaller and smaller granular details at the expense of the bigger, more complicated areas which should actually be the highest priority; can we get transitions between tasks down to two second from three? Can we get children packed away in twenty seconds instead of thirty? Only I know if this sort of thing is really where I should be focusing, or whether we should be reading progressively harder but more rewarding historical scholarship, or indeed whether we should be doing both. Only I know if I have introduced more challenging interpretations and more obscure, more subtle sources.

This, for me, is where the true meaning of professionalism in teaching lies: the acceptance that we will never, never arrive at the end and that only we really know how hard we are striving to move our classes on. There’s always more to do. There’s always more to learn. For every summit we reach another beckons us on from the horizon and we are often the only people who can see it.

This isn’t to say I think like this every day and with every class.

But I know I should. I know I try to.