Behaviour and Discipline in Schools - Education Committee Contents

2  The nature, level and impact of challenging behaviour in schools: perception or reality?

The nature and level of challenging behaviour in schools

7. In his report on Behaviour and the role of Home-School Agreements, commissioned by the previous Government and published in 2010, Sir Alan Steer summarised his most recent observations on the nature and level of behaviour in schools by declaring that

Behaviour standards in schools are high for the great majority of young people. The misconduct of a few represents a small percentage of the seven million pupils in the school system. Concern over behaviour standards among the young is often fuelled by the news of well publicised incidents. Invariably these are unrepresentative and rare.[7] […] indeed it is my opinion that standards have risen over the last thirty years.[8]

Sir Alan reaffirmed this to us in oral evidence, saying "I think that I do stick by that [judgment]", although he added the caveat that "our analysis of the situation is often poor and, because [of this], we do not hit the bull's-eye in terms of the actions we want to take".[9]

8. Sir Alan's sanguine assessment is supported by Ofsted inspection reports. The 2009-10 Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector found that pupils' behaviour was "good or outstanding in 89% of primary schools and 70% of secondary schools inspected in 2009-10".[10] This compares with 95% primary and 80% secondary in 2008-09[11] and 93% primary and 72% secondary in 2007-8.[12] Over time, secondary schools have performed consistently less well than primary schools in terms of behaviour.

9. The Department for Education's written memorandum summarised the findings of a range of surveys undertaken by teaching unions on the subject of pupil behaviour:

There is violence and assault in our schools. NASUWT have estimated that there is one assault (verbal or physical) every seven minutes. A recent poll by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) found that 38.6% of respondents had dealt with physical aggression that academic year. Most reported incidents (87%) involved violence towards another pupil, more than a quarter involved violence against the respondent, with 44% of incidents involving another teacher or a member of support staff.[13]

10. The Teacher Support Network's 2010 Behaviour Survey, undertaken in conjunction with Parentline Plus, showed that 92% of respondents said pupil behaviour had worsened during their career.[14] The Association of Teachers and Lecturers' Member Survey in Spring 2010 (Challenging Behaviour in Schools) found that "verbal abuse of teachers, in terms of insults, threats and derogatory comments, is distressingly common: 51% of ATL members surveyed reported that they had experienced this".[15] These statistics are compelling but should be seen in context, given the lack of solid comparative data over time and the response rates to the surveys: 389 and 1000 respectively.

11. Ofsted's ability to capture an accurate picture of behaviour in schools was doubted by several witnesses. We discuss the role of Ofsted in greater detail later in our report, but a key issue arising in evidence from teachers—particularly those in non-leadership roles or those representing classroom teachers—was that "some Ofsted reports and the Steer report don't ring true with what [teachers] see".[16] Tom Trust, a former member of the General Teaching Council for England, questioned the validity of judgments made in the Steer report and by Ofsted, saying

I have read the Steer report, and I think that he talked to a lot of head teachers. Head teachers have told me that there are no discipline problems in their school when there have been copies of lesson observations that they have taken when they have been observing the teacher. In those observations, there have been a list of misdemeanours happening with the head in the room. I have also heard a head say, on oath, that there were no disciplinary problems, even though there were press reports stating that there were. Getting evidence from head teachers is not always reliable, because they have a lot to lose.[17]

Mr Trust also referred to the "strategies that head teachers use to avoid the Ofsted inspectors seeing the worst children", which included suspending the worst behaved pupils or employing supply teachers to cover disruptive lessons.[18] Katharine Birbalsingh, a former deputy headteacher, questioned the standards against which Ofsted judgments are formed, saying that "when Ofsted says something is good, it's not very good".[19] Daisy Christodoulou, a Teach First Ambassador,[20] supported this, explaining that "if you say bad behaviour is only something that is at the extremes of violence, then yes, it is a minority. But if you define it more broadly, which I think it is fair to do, then I think that there are problems".[21] In conclusion, Tom Trust believed that "Ofsted's views on behaviour are not worth the paper they are written on".[22]

12. In oral evidence to our inquiry, Sir Alan Steer acknowledged that his judgment of the nature and level of behaviour in schools "puts a lot of emphasis on Ofsted"; but he argued that "one has to have very, very strong grounds for disregarding Ofsted evidence. If you are going to say that the national inspection service, which goes into large numbers of school and focuses on this topic has got it wrong, you must have good grounds to say that—and I haven't got those good grounds".[23]

13. Lord Elton concluded in his 1989 report that, while there was poor behaviour in schools, the greatest impact was from constant small-scale indiscipline.[24] Lord Elton's findings were echoed in evidence to this inquiry: there was a general consensus that, "it is low level disruption (name calling, swearing, not paying attention, interrupting and fighting)"[25] which is most prevalent, with small pockets of extremely challenging behaviour. However, as described in previous paragraphs, several witnesses argued that the significance and impact of low level disruption was being brushed aside. We can see that it would be in the interests of school leaders and teaching unions to tend to underplay the nature and level of challenging behaviour in schools, given schools' considerable responsibility for ensuring standards of behaviour.

14. Katherine Birbalsingh spoke of the impact of bad behaviour, saying that:

Bad behaviour spreads like a cancer; it is very difficult to contain it. One very badly behaved student impacts on a second one, who is quite badly behaved, and those two impact on two others, who are somewhat badly behaved. It spreads, so that even the very good students become somewhat unsettled. That creates a situation where you have low-level behaviour. People often dismiss that, and say, "It's just low-level behaviour, that's okay." You'd be amazed, however, at how disruptive to learning low-level behaviour is.[26]

15. It was suggested to us by John Bangs—former Assistant Secretary of the NUT—that violent behaviour, although perhaps less frequent, was becoming more severe in nature.[27] Mr Bangs also cited a study by Maurice Galton and John MacBeath, published in 2008, which concluded that primary schools were experiencing particularly confrontational behaviour.[28]


16. The Association of Directors of Children's Services stated that "improved standards of behaviour lead to improved attainment and well-being outcomes for children and young people".[29] In a paper by Professor Stephen Gorard on how children's enjoyment of secondary school can be enhanced, which he submitted to the inquiry, he observed that the behaviour of some students could be a major factor hindering others' enjoyment of school and learning, and he described the abusive behaviour of a minority of young people to their peers as "perhaps the biggest single threat to genuinely inclusive and comprehensive schooling".[30] Professor Gorard also cited examples of children expressing frustration about lessons wasted through disruptive behaviour; and this was echoed in a written submission from a parent whose children had described their biggest problem at secondary school as being the behaviour of other children in school, which had diverted teachers' attention and had limited the amount which the children had learnt.[31] The consequences can be disengagement among pupils, as noted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.[32]

17. There is also a wealth of evidence linking exclusion from school with academic underachievement, offending behaviour, limited ambition, homelessness and mental ill health.[33] For example, the Department for Education and Skills' 2004 Youth Cohort Study showed that only 20% of pupils with a fixed-term or permanent exclusion from school in Years 10 and 11 achieved 5 or more GCSEs at A*-C (or equivalent), compared to 58% of children not excluded.[34] We did not take evidence on these links, but we are satisfied that they are beyond question.

18. Several written submissions described the damaging impact of poor behaviour on teacher morale and confidence. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers summarised the position:

The impact on staff who experience challenging classroom behaviour is huge. Members cite effects including chronic stress, depression, voice loss, loss of confidence, illness resulting in time off work, negative impact on home/family life.[35]

Other bodies representing teaching staff made very similar points.[36]

19. In some cases, the stress is such that teachers leave the profession. 70% of respondents to the Teacher Support Network's 2010 Behaviour Survey indicated that poor pupil behaviour had at some point caused them to consider leaving the profession.[37] The Department told us that:

For teachers, workload is the highest demotivating factor (56%), followed by initiative overload (39%), a 'target driven culture' (35%) and, pupil behaviour (31%). Another study found that 68% of 1,400 teachers agreed that negative behaviour is driving teachers out of the profession, with secondary teachers more likely to agree with this statement than primary teachers. Half of the sample (51%) felt that teachers with less experience were more likely to be driven out of the profession by negative behaviour, while 19% disagreed with this.[38]

20. There is evidence that the reputation of classroom behaviour acts as a deterrent to those considering entering the teaching profession. The Department told us that:

Pupil behaviour has a significant impact on the recruitment and retention of teachers. Issues of workload and poor pupil behaviour are important factors in dissuading undergraduates from entering the teaching profession and influencing serving teachers to leave. A 2008 poll of undergraduates found that feeling unsafe in the classroom was the greatest deterrent to entering the teaching profession.[39]

21. Senior staff at Beaumont Leys School in Leicester illustrated for us the enormous drain on resources—in terms of teaching staff and specialist staff time—in handling children who were persistently and sometimes violently disruptive.[40] Oxfordshire County Council made the same point, observing that such behaviour "puts a huge strain on school staff" and "requires expertise and resources from a range of professionals".[41]

22. Poor behaviour also has an impact on learning. According to a survey of NASUWT members in March 2009, low-level disruption was leading to the loss of an average of thirty minutes teaching time per teacher per day.[42] We note that the OECD's Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) in 2009 suggested that, across 23 countries researched, as much as 30% of teaching time was lost due to poor pupil behaviour.[43] Ofsted told us that in schools in which behaviour standards were judged as being inadequate, learning was "too often hindered by poor concentration, persistent low-level misconduct and, sometimes, by more serious disruption involving a minority of pupils".[44]

23. A Teach First Ambassador, Daisy Christodoulou, pointed out that "even if only a few pupils do really quite bad things, if they are seen to be getting away with those things, it makes it so much harder to tell a kid at the back of the class to stop drinking a Coke or to do their tie up properly, so the two are linked. It may be a minority of pupils who behave in that way, but if you don't deal with it effectively—in a lot of cases, we don't—it impacts on everyone and lowers standards across the school".[45]


24. Evidence to our inquiry appeared to confirm the conclusion of the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England, that "it would be entirely possible to produce convincing reports based on anecdote/individual experience (for example from teachers) to argue both for and against the idea that discipline in schools is a substantial problem".[46] What is clear, though, is that variation in teachers' experience both within and between schools is substantial. Sir Alan Steer explained that "in some schools, there are significant problems. In other schools, you have problems with some teachers for some periods. We need to have that at the front of our minds when we are looking for solutions. One of the big issues that we do not talk sufficiently about in this country's education system is the variation".[47]

25. Witnesses also remarked upon the rise in pupils with more complex behavioural issues. The Association of Educational Psychologists observed that "educational psychologists are often told by teachers that the pupils they are expected to teach now would not have been in school five to ten years ago. The expectations on teachers, especially in secondary settings, do not seem to be matched by effective training".[48]

26. One reason for the difficulty in forming a view on standards of behaviour is the lack of comprehensive data on the subject beyond that relating to school exclusions. There is a particular absence of 'softer' data relating to the incidence and associated repercussions of low-level disruptive behaviour which does not result in exclusion. The Department for Education does not collect or hold centrally any data on injuries in school, although the Health and Safety Executive records data on reported injuries to teachers involving acts of violence. These figures show that school staff have suffered over 2,000 reported injuries over the past decade, with total assaults rising from 171 in 2001-2 to 251 in 2009-10.[49] However, only physical injuries suffered by people 'at work' are reportable, meaning that acts of violence against school pupils (who are categorised as members of the public and not 'at work'), are excluded from this data.

27. Amongst excluded pupils, data from the Department for Education shows that assault is the second most common reason for being excluded after persistent disruptive behaviour.
2007/8Permanent exclusions % of all permanent exclusions
Physical assault against a pupil

Physical assault against an adult





Fixed term exclusions % of all fixed term exclusions
Physical assault against a pupil

Physical assault against an adult





2008/9Permanent exclusions % of all permanent exclusions
Physical assault against a pupil

Physical assault against an adult





Fixed term exclusions % of all fixed term exclusions
Physical assault against a pupil

Physical assault against an adult





Source: Department for Education, Statistical First Release: Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions from Schools and Exclusion Appeals Panels in England, 2007/8 and 2008/9

Dr Patrick Roach, Deputy General Secretary of the NASUWT, warned that:

It does worry my union that there may be any moves afoot to roll back on an expectation, or indeed a requirement on schools, to record and report incidents of bullying and violent assault—pupil on pupil as well as pupil on staff—simply because there tends to be, within schools, an under-reporting and an underestimate of the extent and scale of those issues, which is the reason why so many of our classroom teacher members feel that school leadership is out of touch with what is actually happening in terms of the reality in classrooms and in delivering the kind of support that teachers feel they need.[50]

28. Current data does not fully represent the nature of behaviour in schools and the impact this has on staff, pupils, parents and carers. It is very difficult therefore to form an accurate judgment either of the reality of the situation in schools or whether there has been an improvement over time. Data should be collected and published annually by the Department from a representative sample of schools, on the number of serious incidents in schools, including those which do not result in a fixed-term or permanent exclusion. In order that a school's individual interpretation of 'challenging behaviour' is not taken as the only measure in establishing a picture of behaviour, this data should be complemented by survey data from teachers, pupils, parents and carers, on their own experience of bad and disruptive behaviour and its effect on pupils and teachers. The data and questions should remain consistent over time.


29. Witnesses were concerned that Ofsted's new inspection framework, introduced in September 2009, would fail to provide a robust overview of the nature and level of behaviour in schools. Ofsted now varies the frequency of individual schools' inspections, depending on the results of their previous inspections and annual assessments of subsequent performance. Schools judged 'good' or 'outstanding' at their previous inspection are inspected only at five year intervals. The change was introduced to allow Ofsted to focus on schools which give cause for concern. However, Tom Trust highlighted a potential weakness in this approach, asking "if they aren't going to look at the outstanding schools, what yardstick are they going to use to measure others by?"[51] Sir Alan Steer argued that even the best schools can benefit from constant challenge in the pursuit of consistently high standards, telling us that "I, personally, am a supporter of inspection and I would not be reducing the amount of inspection of schools. We should see inspection far more as an agent for change and school improvement than we tend to".[52]

30. The White Paper The Importance of Teaching proposes several reforms to Ofsted inspections which will impact on the way the nature and level of challenging behaviour in schools is assessed in future. Ofsted inspections will focus on just four key areas, one of which will be behaviour and safety. Inspectors will be given more time to look for evidence of how well pupils behave, by observing lessons and pupils' conduct around the school. They will also seek evidence from pupils and parents as well as from teachers; and parents will be able to ask Ofsted to carry out an inspection if they have any concerns about behaviour and feel that the school has not dealt with them properly. Finally, schools will also be expected to demonstrate that the standards of behaviour seen during the inspection are maintained at all times.[53]

31. The proposal in the Schools White Paper for Ofsted inspections to focus more on behaviour is welcome. There are risks in reducing the frequency of inspections for good and outstanding schools, but we support moves to release schools from unnecessary central inspection. The new regime will place increased responsibility on school leaders, teachers and governors to ensure that a culture of self-evaluation and self-improvement is put in place. We are particularly pleased that there will be opportunities for a wider range of views to be covered in inspections: from pupils and parents to classroom teachers. This will help to combat any perceptions that schools leaders might seek to misrepresent the true nature and level of challenging behaviour in their schools. We also welcome the powers being given to parents to call the school to account and the requirement for schools to show that standards of behaviour are maintained at all times. These measures will help to provide a consistent level of challenge to schools in pursuit of constantly high standards.

7   Sir Alan Steer, Behaviour and the role of Home-School Agreements, 2010, p 5 Back

8   Sir Alan Steer, Behaviour and the role of Home-School Agreements, 2010, p 8 Back

9   Q 59 Back

10   HMCI Annual Report 2009-10, p 32 Back

11   HMCI Annual Report 2008-09, p 28; Annual Report 2007-08, p 26 Back

12   Figures for 2008-09 and 2009-10 are not directly comparable, due to the introduction of a new Ofsted inspection framework in September 2009 Back

13   Ev 167 Back

14   Ev w117 Back

15   Ev 119 Back

16   Q 225 [Daisy Christodoulou] Back

17   Q 221 Back

18   Q 221 Back

19   Q 220 Back

20   Teach First describes itself as "a charity that recruits exceptional graduates looking to make an impact in the classroom of schools in challenging circumstances and who have a desire to address the inequalities in education in the long-term". On completion of Teach First's two year Leadership Development Programme, participants become Teach First ambassadors. The role of an ambassador is to continue to address educational disadvantage whichever career the ambassador chooses to take up in the long-term. Back

21   Q 225 Back

22   Q 221 Back

23   Q 59 Back

24   Discipline in Schools: Report of the Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Elton, 1989, Summary, para 3 Back

25   Ev w2 [John Bangs] Back

26   Q 220 Back

27   Ev w2 Back

28   Ev w2 Back

29   Ev w97 Back

30   Gorard, S. and See, BH (2010) How can we enhance enjoyment of secondary school? The student view, British Educational Research Journal, 37 (forthcoming), Back

31   Ev w37 [David Wright]  Back

32   Ev 120 Back

33   See citations in Ev 168 [Department for Education] para 22 Back

34   Ev 168 [Department for Education] para 25 Back

35   Ev 120 Back

36   e.g. Ev 127 [Voice] para 2 Back

37   Ev w118 para 12 Back

38   Ev 168 Back

39   Ev 168 Back

40   See Annex 2 Back

41   Ev w108 Back

42   Q28 [Dr Roach] Back

43   Creating Effective Learning and Teaching Environments: First Results from TALIS, OECD (2009). See Ev 168 Back

44   Ev w156 Back

45   Q 219 Back

46   Ev w57 Back

47   Q 59 Back

48   Ev 94 Back

49   HC Deb, 10 November 2010, column 325W Back

50   Q 37 Back

51   Q 229 Back

52   Q 65 Back

53   The Importance of Teaching, Cm 7980, Department for Education, November 2010, paras 3.23 and 3.24 Back

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