The problem of behaviour in schools: initial thoughts on the Bennett Report

9 min read

This is a quick response to the following report:

A review group was commissioned in 2015 by the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan MP, to look at content in initial teacher education. The group was chaired by independent education expert Tom Bennett. This report on behaviour in schools is an adjunct to that work.

The premise of the report is that attention to behaviour in schools has been relatively neglected. The report, after the weighing-up of selected evidence, concludes that “There is sufficient evidence to suggest that there is enough of a problem nationally with behaviour for it to be a matter of concern” (p. 21). It goes on to characterise ‘bad’ behaviour as “…behaviour that detracts from the academic and social success of the school community, along with behaviour that diminishes the dignity of staff or students (for example harassment or name-calling)” (p. 22).

There is careful consideration of whether insisting on good behaviour is oppressive. It links good behaviour with the characteristics of self-restraint and self-regulation. That to be free we have to learn to master these abilities.

There is no examination of the social, anthropological and sociological processes through which a child learns to behave well, as an effective learner and scholar, and with due respect to peers and adults. However, the means are implied in the characterisation of the features of effective schools.

The features of effective schools include: strong and effective leadership which  communicates a clear vision. I assume that this vision is a view of the culture of the school in terms of observable good behaviours. This implies a high level of conformity, but as Bennett stresses in this report this compliance does not amount to oppression.

There is a clear link made between ‘good’ behaviour and performance in examination results. I imagine the assumption is that if school leaders and managers can observe  good behaviour and that examination success is achieved, this is evidence enough of school effectiveness. I think bigger questions about the purpose of education need to be addressed here.

The pracitices underpinning the school-level approach include a full commitment and belief in the systems of behaviour management; a commitment to its consistent implementation; attention to detail in its application and that routines and rules are practiced and emphasised.

The establishment and repitition of routines appear at the heart of Bennett’s effective behaviour management process. This is consistent with a behvarioust view of learning. It is a conditioning process in which behavioural models are presented and a system of sanctions are used to ensure that pupils develop automatic responses in situations in the school. This create social norms within the school.

At some point, someone has to decide what behaviour is appropriate in order to construct a routine for the school. Someone, presumably, has to decide that there is a particular way in which pupils must move about the school and how they respond in lessons. The difficulty is in finding the limits to this programming: in which aspects does behaviour have to be legitimised and programmed? Where do individuals have the opportunity to act of their own volition and exercise agency and control?

It begs the same question that is raised at the beginning of the report, is this oppressive? Tom Bennett is rightly sensitive about this issue. I am not assured that has been answered fully. It is necessary to consider it in developmental terms: the appropriate level of behavioural control and whether this is compatible with human development. This report does not address this critical concern.

There is limited evidence that compliance in this way necessarily leads to the development of self-regulation. Self-regulation is developed through exercising agency and constructing our own models of behavioural response . We have to be very careful that we do not suppress this in a highly compliant setting. That would amount to oppression, to the extent that it is an abuse of human rights.

Teachers, especially trainees, must have the opportunity to develop a profound understanding of a range of disciplines that underpin children’s and young people’s developmental processes. It is inadequate, as teacher preparation, to present behavioural management as the effective implementation of desired models, routines and processes. These are necessary but a long way short of sufficient.

For many children the desired behaviours that are encouraged in a school are highly consistent with their social and cultural experience. This is the essence of what is lazily referred to as ‘normal’ behaviour. It is also consistent with what this report refers to as ‘good’ behaviour. Many schools centre around the British middle class; British middle class teachers enacting British middle class values and norms. To comply with this is manageable for many students even from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And even from different social classes. But for many reasons a significant proportion of children in our schools find it harder to comply. The social norms, the cutural context, the physicality and the cognitive demands are incompatible in so many ways. Often the the underlying reason for their non-conformity (‘bad’ behaviour) is undiagnosed, they are not recognised in an official sense as having a special educational need. It is unsurprising that students, whether they are recognised as having specific needs or not, or that they are from particular socio-economic and ethnic groups, become excluded. Whether that is a formal or informal exclusion.

The answer to this, in this report, is to be robust in ensuring that these pupils observe and accept the models of acceptable behaviour. It is suggested that, and alluded to, in the introduction of this report that we have not been doing this well enough. That teacher educators have not been making the simple truths of behaviour management more plain.

I am afraid that this, and the underlying premise of the report, are an oversimplication of the problems teachers and schools face in respect to pupils’ behaviour. It does not recognise the delicate balance of emotion, motivation, cognition and behaviour. Bandura has been a key contributor in the identification of the sophisticated reciprocity between social environment, cognition and behaviour. That in order to act in a particular way we have to have both knowledge, i.e. models of behaviour, and the belief that we are going to be successful. We need a supportive environment in which we develop confidence in our behaviours. We need to have faith that compliance will lead us to success. This is not just in an artificial sense such as being successful in examinations, it also needs to be related to deeper human fulfilment.

As part of their development, children need to have confidence to adapt and deviate from norms.

It is less effective, and often not effective at all, if we are presented with models of behaviour, with external motivations to comply, such as rewards and punishments. For many children it works for them, that’s how schools traditionally work. But for a significant proportion it simply does not foster self-regulation (as Bandura would call it, self-efficacy). It will work for some schools, it will not work for all schools and it will especially not work for schools in particular contexts.

What this report does is emphasise a traditional model of behaviour management and it suggests that if it is done more strictly, with greater attention and more seriously, then behaviour will improve. What I am saying is that this model is obsolete, it is of the past. We need to be moving forward.

There has never been a more important time, we need progressive and more sophisticated approaches to behaviour management. It is a complex and difficult world that children are growing up in. There are more challenges for them than for the previous couple of generations. We need to foster students’ capacity to live together and solve some of society’s problems (I don’t think Tom Bennett and I disagree on this, it’s just the means). For this they need knowledge, confidence, character, communication skills, problem-solving skills and reasoning skills.

To do this effectively, schools cannot be rigid and austere institutions of the past. They need the capacity to innovate in practice, they need to encourage curiosity, they need to be inclusive. This needs to be underpinned by a system of values, principles, flexibility and age-appropriate democratic participation. Teachers need to have a deep and critical understanding of disciplinary knowledge as well as in psychology, anthropology and sociology, at least.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman.

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