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Behaviour checklists: a ticking timebomb

Giving UK schools yet more guidelines to follow won't improve behaviour, but will undermine teachers’ authority.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

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A report last week by the UK Department for Education (DfE) claimed that as many as half of abuse claims made by pupils and parents against teachers in recent years were unfounded. This wave of false allegations comes amid reports that British schools are increasingly facing problems with disciplining pupils.

The Education Bill currently working its way through parliament does contain some relief for teachers. A provision in the Bill would grant teachers full anonymity while they are investigated over accusations of assault against pupils, at least up to the point where police decided to press charges. Furthermore, the government has issued new advice that makes a considered approach to such allegations the default position rather than an assumption that pupils are telling the truth.

These changes ought to be welcomed. Too many teachers have faced the nightmare of being tried and judged publicly on the word of a pupil, only to be proven innocent. By then, the damage has already been done – not just to the individual teacher but to the teaching profession as a whole.

However, other Lib-Con government proposals on this issue are deeply worrying. Earlier this year, Charlie Taylor, headteacher at a school in north London, was appointed as an expert adviser to the UK government on behaviour. Last week, he issued a recommendation that schools introduce ‘checklists’ to improve discipline. His initiative is based on a similar scheme introduced to hospitals by surgeon Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Gawande’s checklist is intended to help reduce complications arising from post-surgical infections. He proposed the checklist should be read out before each operation as a reminder to follow basic, essential rules.

But such behaviour policies miss an important point: any technique can only really work if the teacher is regarded as a legitimate, authoritative figure in the first place. If that authority is missing, such techniques imposed from the outside can end up making matters worse. In the main, pupils accept occasional outbursts or episodes of inconsistency from teachers provided they are generally accepted as sources of educational authority. Behaviour policies tend to work against this authority because they suggest that any judgement by the teacher is illegitimate unless it follows much-displayed guidelines or policies.

This encourages some pupils to constantly look out for discrepancies/faults in teachers. Thus the collective authority of teachers is undermined and unhelpful divisions arise between staff who ‘comply’ and those who are ‘reluctant compliers’. Indeed, another of Taylor’s checklist items urges heads to swiftly identify and deal with staff not seen to be following the school’s behaviour policy. Such measures create an atmosphere that is antithetical to the constructive, co-operative environment needed for proper education to take place.

The application of medical procedures to education, a cultural and social endeavour, is highly problematic and runs counter to the values of liberal education. People are not germs to be contained, however unappealing and difficult some schoolchildren may seem. And, in fact, authority – a prerequisite for discipline – would be undermined rather than reinforced if a teacher were seen to seek guidance from a simplistic checklist rather than having the confidence to rely on his or her own knowledge and pedagogical skills.

Taylor’s checklists for teachers and headteachers are designed to be used by schools to run through daily in order to ensure that basic behaviour rules are in place. The recommendations are vacuous to the point of being patronising. Taylor recommends, among other things, that teachers learn all their pupils’ and colleagues’ names, and that they reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour. Headteachers are also advised to learn the names of all members of staff and to praise them for good performance.

The behaviour checklist doesn’t say anything that teachers don’t already know. It’s also contradictory. For instance, on the one hand it urges schools to be consistent in their policies or else pupils will be more likely to try to push the boundaries. On the other hand, it also emphasises that teachers need to be alert and sympathetic to individual needs and circumstances. These two pieces of advice do not sit well together, as teachers often find out when school management steps in to revoke sanctions on the grounds that they are insensitive to an individual pupil’s needs.

Another pearl of wisdom from the checklist is that teachers should ‘stay calm’ and follow the stages of a behavioural policy. This is idiotic advice, as if teachers choose to lose their temper. Following prescribed ‘steps’ is not about demonstrating authority; rather it involves blindly abdicating judgement and behaving like an automaton.

By now, like most of the public, teachers are probably used to being patronised by ‘experts’, but if this approach gets accepted by school staff then the consequences will be dire for two fundamental reasons.

First, if a teacher is experiencing difficulty in classroom control, then to defer his or her own judgement to a simplistic checklist is only likely further to diminish that teacher’s own authority. Teachers are better off seeking advice and support from colleagues. The managerial checklist route may well help a teacher become a more effective ‘pupil controller’, but this has very little to do with being a good educator.

Second, the checklist is also completely detached from any specific content of education and as a blueprint is likely to compound an already confused and confusing situation. For example, ‘consistency’ is a popular buzzword – it’s seen as the key to keeping pupils orderly and focused. But the question is, what do schools need to be consistent about and who is to say consistency in itself avoids generating tension? For example, if a school consistently rewards bringing in a healthy snack as opposed to a packet of crisps for lunch, then this is bound to bring the school into conflict with those parents who don’t think crisps harm their kids.

The only thing that is consistent about the checklist itself is how it rephrases teaching as behaviour management rather than as imparting subject knowledge. And this, really, is the crux of the problem of authority and teacher-pupil relations in schools: this search for ‘experts’ and alternative sources of authority arises because subject-based learning is no longer the guiding principle of education. Teachers have traditionally had authority in the classroom because they are experts in that subject and can communicate it to their pupils. In the place of teachers’ expertise we have discipline, behaviour management, developing ’emotional intelligence’, and making subjects relevant to the needs of students, the economy and the Earth.

When teachers are urged by an assortment of experts to be sensitive to pupil’s needs, then the pupils are also more likely to grasp opportunities to hold teachers accountable for this. That may, at least partly, explain the recent wave in false abuse allegations.

The behaviour checklist will propound this problem. The outcome of such recommendations is that autonomous or spontaneous judgements are frowned upon – and that only undermines teachers’ confidence and authority. The more teachers are trusted to impart knowledge and to develop pupils’ intellectual understanding and curiosity, the more likely it is that their authority will be strengthened. It is from that authority that discipline and trust will follow.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics

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