Terry Haydn explores the cost of classroom disruption on pupils and teachers and provides a 10-level scale to assess what's going on in your class
The latest Ofsted annual report states that behaviour is inadequate in less than 1 per cent of schools. Yet statistics show that 17,000 pupils were expelled for physical attacks on adults last year. Did they all take place in that small proportion of schools where behaviour is officially inadequate?
I have conducted several studies in the area of "classroom climate" and the results suggest that behaviour is a problem in far more than 1 per cent of schools. And the disruption teachers talk about is not limited to low-level incidents such as pupils not putting their hands up or leaving their seats without permission. Many schools have to deal with pupils who are very difficult to manage, and teachers often have to make tough decisions if they want keep everyone in the classroom while preserving a climate that is ideal for learning.
Some of the research involved using a 10-point scale (see below), with level 10 representing a climate which is perfect for learning, and level 1 representing an atmosphere where behaviour makes learning virtually impossible.
HOW DO YOU FARE ON THE SCALE?
10. You feel completely relaxed, able to undertake any form of lesson activity without concern. You and the pupils work together, enjoying the experience.
9. You feel completely in control and can undertake any sort of activity, but you need to exercise authority at times, in a friendly way, to maintain a calm, purposeful working atmosphere.
8. You can maintain a relaxed and co-operative working atmosphere, but this requires thought and effort at times. Some forms of lesson activity may be under less control than others.
7. You can maintain a co-operative working atmosphere and undertake any form of classroom activity, but this requires more considerable thought and effort.
6. It is often a major effort to establish and maintain a relaxed, calm atmosphere. Several pupils will not remain on task without persistent surveillance, exhortation or threats. It is sometimes difficult to get pupils to be quiet while you are talking, but there is no major disruption.
5. Your control is limited, and there are times when you would be embarrassed if the head walked in. The atmosphere is rather chaotic at times, with several pupils manifestly not listening to you. But pupils who want to work can get on with it, albeit in a rather noisy atmosphere.
4. Your control is limited: it takes time and effort to get the class to listen. You try to get onto the worksheet or written part of the lesson fairly quickly in order to get their heads down. Pupils talk while you are talking, and minor transgressions go unpunished because too many occur. You try to keep a lid on things and concentrate on those pupils who are trying to work.
3. There is major disruption and many pupils pay little attention to your presence. Swearwords may go unchecked and pupils walk round the room at will. When you write on the board, objects are thrown around the room.
2. The pupils largely determine what goes on. You take materials into the lesson, but once distributed they are ignored, drawn on or made into paper aeroplanes. When you write on the board, objects are thrown at you rather than around the room.
1. Your entry into the classroom is greeted by jeers and abuse. There are so many transgressions of the rules it is difficult to know where to start. You wish you had not gone into teaching.
What can be done?
Although there were many schools where the bottom three or four levels on the scale did not occur, most respondents recognised the intermediate levels. In those lessons, pupil behaviour would limit not just learning and outcomes - it would also affect preparation, as some planning would be directed towards keeping control rather than learning.
We surveyed more than 200 student teachers, asking them to reflect on what levels on the scale they had encountered as pupils. More than 90 per cent reported that they had sometimes been in classrooms where poor behaviour had limited learning, and a similar proportion felt they had encountered level 6 or below. Even very experienced and accomplished teachers, who were widely acknowledged by their peers as being as good as it gets in terms of managing pupil behaviour, talked of working below level 8.
One change over the years is that a higher proportion of pupils are aware of their rights today. Physical presence, a booming voice and the capacity for physical intimidation are no longer particularly relevant assets, as pupils are aware of what teachers are and are not allowed to do. Teachers today need to rely on their intelligence, skills of interaction with pupils, good judgment, adroit use of school systems, and collaboration with colleagues.
But the situation is not just down to "inadequate" teachers or "bad" schools. It takes considerable skill to get to level 10, where all pupils to commit wholeheartedly to learning in some classes. There should be stronger and more concerted support for schools from parents, governors, local education authorities and government. There is a need to change culture as well as policy and practice.
The working atmosphere in the classroom has an important influence on pupil attainment. Countries with good classroom climate consistently perform well in international tests of educational performance. It is also an important factor in teacher retention and the quality of teachers' working lives - there are very few things in professional life less edifying than being, in effect, locked in a room with 30 children not fully under your control.
As one newly qualified teacher put it: "In terms of how much you enjoy your teaching, there's a massive difference between operating at levels 7 and 8, which are OK, no big hassle ... and level 10, when it's just a fantastic job, pure pleasure, and you can get a real buzz out of the interaction with pupils. It's like the adverts for teaching on the TV, but in real life."
Of course, good schools and good teachers make a big difference to behaviour. Teachers have to develop complex and sophisticated skills in order to cultivate a perfect classroom climate, and this has a big influence on pupil behaviour. But the new Government seems to focus only on empowering heads to exclude. Though several teachers I interviewed felt under pressure not to exclude, even when there strong evidence of pupils interfering with others' learning, none of the heads I interviewed felt that "zero tolerance" was either morally defensible or practical. As one pointed out: "Zero tolerance in someone else's school usually means that the pupil ends up coming to this school, and we already have more than our share of difficult pupils."
Terry Haydn is a reader in education at the University of East Anglia and the author of "Managing Pupil Behaviour" (Routledge).
The full version of the scale, and the rationale for it, is available on the UEA site.