Behaviour in FE – The Problem with the Solution

Behaviour management is a huge topic. I don’t intend to write here about the basics which are, increasingly, widely agreed upon (at least among school leaders – I know this is a controversial area in the education community, particularly in universities, but I think school practice is moving steadily toward a more disciplined approach). I want to explore the question of whether these basic principles (consistent standards, swift sanctions, fairly applied) can be implemented in the current context of FE and, if so, why they are largely not.

I started teaching in a school with a vague, shabbily enforced behaviour policy that usually amounted to hanging sole responsibility around the teacher’s neck. It was an awful NQT and second year and I would have left the job had the school not suddenly, and radically, changed for the better. Despite Ofsted grading its behaviour as “good,” staff insistence to the contrary spurred SLT to address the issue. They created a new post and, finally, one person was responsible for ensuring consistency across the school. The appointee was dynamic, to say the least. He could have been a member of the Justice League. His superpower was being able to drop in to every year nine class across the whole school, every day. Midweek, he used to sleep on a crash mat in the sports hall because it was easier than going home. We all expected, and signed up, to a year battling to raise standards. However, the implementation of the new policy was so incisive, so uniform, that we saw results within a month. By Christmas of my third year it was like working in a different school, and from what I gather things have continued to improve.

This experience, along with reading the likes of Tom Bennett, Doug Lemov and Old Andrew (unsure of real name!), as well as the work of Katharine Birbalsingh at Michaela, got me thinking in a completely different way about behaviour management. Whilst it’s undeniable that some teachers are naturals at class control and others less so, I believe almost all can teach effectively in a well-managed environment. The crux is, it needs both firm leadership from the top as well as all staff buying in and pulling their weight. And that’s where we come to vocational FE. I have heard a lot of people comment that the same principles should apply, “because people are people.” You’d think so, but colleges are not schools. There are some problems with policing clear boundaries, both at the classroom and college level. Here are some that I have encountered:

1) Consistency – Different courses have different expectations of their students. There are public service courses, for those joining the Police and armed forces, which demand nothing less than exemplary behaviour in all lessons. At the other end of the spectrum are programmes designed specifically for students who have not finished secondary school, for reasons you can imagine. The former would be kicked out over behaviour which the latter are congratulated for. “Well, they should all be held to the same high standards,” I hear you saying. I would have said that before working in FE. But it’s not that simple. One of the reasons colleges exist is to keep students who have failed everywhere else in education. Maybe they’ve been allowed to get away with murder for the last five years in school with low standards, and maybe that’s not right, but it’s happened. The college’s job is not to insist on such high standards in the first three weeks that the students we most need to reach think “screw this, I’ll just go on the dole and sell pot.” It is no longer compulsory, but they are not yet adults. Some students need the water to be brought slowly to boiling point, or they’ll jump out. Others need the heat from day one. Sometimes, these different groups will share a maths or English classroom. For teachers of such classes, unravelling a behaviour incident and dealing with each strand in a way that satisfies each department concerned becomes a Gordian Knot.

2) Get funded or fire someone – A member of my team told me a story from before my arrival. A student in his class had been disruptive and insulting all year. He followed college policy, involved parents, escalated (after much effort) to a meeting with the head of department and the last step (following an aggressive confrontation) should have been for the student to be removed from the course. The last step was a problem. Said student may have been a nightmare in maths, but was one module away from completing a construction course with distinction. Had he been removed, that department would have lost the funding. So, the issue was swept under the carpet. As you can imagine, my colleague’s enthusiasm for following the behaviour policy was somewhat diminished.

That’s a common experience, but before judging those heads too harshly, consider why they do it. Applying the ultimate sanction is like cutting off your nose to make a better learning environment for your face. If your department isn’t bringing the funding in, it is going to shrink, and the margins are not generous. A strict adherence to the college behaviour policy could see one of your team made redundant. What do you do? You can argue that principles should trump pragmatism here, but most people don’t think that way, and the system as it stands incentivises heads to turn a blind eye.

3) Time is the fire in which we burn – and it burns even more quickly in college. Imagine you ran a school which took in students from the whole surrounding region, each of whom had absorbed different routines and standards over a course of years from their previous establishments. How long would it take you to mould them into a cohesive student body, who understood what was expected of them and knew how to behave? Even if it took you no longer than a month, you would have lost 13% of your teaching time before the whole cycle started again, with new arrivals from outside and old students leaving. The turnover is rapid. Some stay for three years, some for three months. Some come in five days a week, some for a single afternoon. They are often educated across different sites. How do you create a culture in those conditions? I know my college does not have the answer. Perhaps another does.

Where all this leaves me, personally, is more or less where I was as an NQT. Of course, I’m not an NQT anymore, so it’s not that bad for me. I have enough experience under my belt to get by. But I know things could be better, and I really feel for new members of the team. We try to create a microcosm of our own in maths and English, but we are battling against all the problems I identify above. There are things we can do to help each other. We can separate the worst offenders, we can phone home, we can do a lot. But we don’t have the final say over anything and there is no common rulebook or ultimate authority to appeal to.

In an alternate universe, I can see a college making the following pitch to the government: Keep our funding locked, independent of the number of enrolments, for five years. Let us do what we need to, in order to make a great environment. Let us spend a year or two with lower student numbers because people get cheesed off at being told what to do. And then see if the college gets a new reputation. See if, after a few years, student numbers go right back up because now every parent within traveling distance wants their son or daughter to attend the college that ensures they can learn.

I don’t know for certain if that would happen, but it’s a moot point. No college could afford to take the risk under the current financial pressures.