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Three Steps to Learning Heaven (Behaviour)

posted on November 13th 2018 in Headmaster's Blog

Over my last two blogs I have outlined ‘three steps to learning heaven.’ Three key areas of school life that any school needs to take a long hard look at if it is going to become exceptional in its culture and learning outcomes.

These three areas are as follows:

  • Curriculum content (i.e. what pupils spend their time learning)
  • Assessment (i.e. how we measure pupil progress and feed back to pupils and parents)
  • Behaviour (i.e. what we expect from pupils in terms of politeness, resilience and self-discipline)

Last week I wrote about homework and assessment. This week I conclude this series of three blogs by focusing on the importance of behaviour.

At Loughborough Amherst School, one of our staffroom mantras is “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This is a famous quote from legendary management consultant and writer Peter Drucker. To be clear, Drucker did not mean that strategy was unimportant to organisational success – rather that a powerful and empowering culture is more important and is, ultimately, the sine qua non of running any successful organisation.

At Loughborough Amherst School our culture can be summed up in three statements:

  • Everyone is known and cared for as a unique individual and child of God, from the most senior teacher to the youngest or newest pupil
  • We practice absolute openness and honesty, and everyone is accountable and open to constructive criticism (especially the Headmaster!)
  • The highest standards of work ethic, focus, consideration for others, and general comportment (manners, dress etc.) are expected from everyone, regardless of age or position

The importance of the last point cannot be overestimated. People often scratch their head as to why children in Singapore or Shanghai routinely outperform their European or North American peers in so many educational measures. Answers are searched for in the realm of teaching strategy, when the most obvious difference, that of culture, is often overlooked. The biggest problem in UK schools is not lack of funding, or the teacher shortage, or the narrowing of the curriculum[1], it is low level disruption and poor behavioural expectations.

The behavioural challenges that schools face vary enormously according to their location and the socio-economic demographic of their intake. A minority[2] of state schools face frightening challenges of violence, drug use, peer-on-peer abuse and completely disengaged families. At the other end of the scale, a School like ours is fortunate enough to be dealing with generally highly engaged and supportive parents and very polite and well brought up children and young adults. But, human nature being what it is, even in a school like ours low level disruption in the classroom can become a serious obstacle to everyone’s learning if not approached with zero tolerance. Perhaps more importantly, even in a school like ours and regardless of family background, a young person facing a crisis of confidence and self-worth or lacking proper boundaries, can very quickly develop habits and mannerisms that work to their disadvantage and to the disadvantage of everyone around them.

It is perhaps more commonly accepted than it was a generation ago that high standards of manners, dress and general behaviour will translate into high standards of academic success, future career success and general happiness. That is why the first piece of advice I would give to any school leader seeking to raise academic standards is very simple: focus on behaviour. This does not mean that we stop paying attention to pupils’ views and concerns or that we become less caring, but it does mean that, within the classroom, the teacher has absolute control. If you allow teachers to adopt a didactic approach and eliminate all disruption in their lesson, the amount of progress that classes can start to make on a day-to-day basis is remarkable. If you want to see the proof of this in the context of very challenging environments, just look at the many London state schools – such as Michaela Community School in Wembley – that are transforming their own results and, more importantly, the life chances of their pupils, through a zero-tolerance approach to behaviour.

It is important to point out that none of this involves being unrealistic or uncaring about young people. Young people cannot and should not be held to the same standards as adults, for the simple reason that they are neurologically incapable of meeting those standards. The relatively dominant influence of the amygdala within the brain of anyone below about 25 years of age means that they are less likely than an older person to rationally consider all aspects of a choice or situation and more likely to react according to more ‘primitive’ drivers of fear, rage, lust or disgust. To put it more simply, young people push against social boundaries. But that is all the more reason to have firm boundaries in the first place. It is also important to note that young people want and expect firm boundaries and high expectations from the adults around them. They may not thank us for it, or even consciously acknowledge it, but they are much more conservative than they would ever admit. They want clarity of authority, even as they fight against it. No one is more despised by young people than the ‘trendy’ teacher, parent (or other authority figure) who is at pains to be their friend or to demonstrate their own ‘maverick’ status.

With all this in mind, we have a code of conduct that makes our high expectations of everyone explicit and, crucially, a system of cumulative sanctions that means that you can be expelled for sustained low level disruption or poor work ethic rather than merely for a few instances of extremely anti-social behaviour. We are also introducing a system whereby those who persist in disrupting lessons (however ‘low level’ the disruption is) after two warnings from teachers are removed from the lesson by a member of the senior leadership team who immediately contacts their parents. This is not an abandonment of our caring ethos, it is real care in action. Above all, it is the mark of a school being bothered to really care for everyone’s needs, from the quiet pupil who is tired of having some of their lessons disrupted, to the ‘disruptive’ pupil who craves and demands proper boundaries and genuinely helpful intervention.

[1] Which is not to say that any of these thee things are not very real problems

[2] And I stress that it is very much a minority – this country is full of fine state schools, many of which are now overtaking their private sector peers in terms of their behavioural vision and expectations.