Experts reject claim Covid has worsened behaviour in English schools
Gavin Williamson’s claim that “out-of-control behaviour” could destroy the atmosphere in England’s schools has been rejected by teachers and children’s advocates, with experts saying there is no evidence pupil conduct has worsened since lockdown.
The education secretary made the remarks as he announced the start of a national network of “behaviour hubs” designed to spread best practice among schools and teachers.
Williamson said some children had been slow to readjust to the classroom because “the lack of regular structure and discipline will inevitably have had an effect on their behaviour”. He added: “Out-of-control behaviour will also destroy the wholesome and happy environment that every school should be, leading to bullying, and turning the playground from a place of joy to a jungle.”
Williamson concluded: “There is nothing Dickensian about a classroom that is a well-ordered, disciplined environment, where firm and fair teaching gives every child the chance to learn and develop at their own pace without fear of distraction.”
But Mark Russell, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “The pandemic has been harmful to children and young people in so many ways. It has left many feeling isolated, missing friends and family and more exposed to risks both inside and outside the home.
“Despite this, we are not aware of any evidence that their behaviour is worse, and our practitioners report that on the whole young people have been relieved to get back inside the classroom.”
Wes Streeting, the shadow schools minister, said Williamson was blaming parents for lacking discipline when his own leadership “has been a chaotic shambles”.
Mary Bousted, a joint leader of the National Education Union, said: “With all the challenges currently facing schools, playing to the gallery by talking tough on behaviour is the least useful approach the education secretary can take.”
But Williamson’s promise to consider new guidelines on the use of mobile phones gained backing from the NASUWT teachers’ union, which has long campaigned for mobiles to be banned in school to stop distraction and reduce bullying on social media.
Patrick Roach, NASUWT’s general secretary, said while many schools had excellent conduct, “some schools require further support to secure and sustain high standards of pupil behaviour”.
The new behaviour hubs are part of a £10m effort by the government to improve the guidance available to classroom teachers and school leaders, after an 2019 election pledge by Boris Johnson.
Stuart Lock, the chief executive of the Advantage Schools trust, which includes one of the 22 schools named as hubs, said: “I don’t believe classroom behaviour has got worse than it was before the pandemic. It is probably a bit better. We have a responsibility to make sure that poor behaviour doesn’t hold any pupils back.”
Lock said the factors that may have led to improved behaviour included pupils being explicitly taught safety routines as part of Covid-19 precautions, and schools working with families and pupils to ensure they supported the management of behaviour.
“These are factors that I think can contribute to good conduct at all times and post-pandemic. It’s when we take conduct for granted without explicitly working on these factors that we risk behaviour standards declining,” Lock said.
The government’s new training project will be led by Tom Bennett, the DfE’s lead adviser on behaviour. “We’ve got some evidence that lockdown was very stressful for some children, and some evidence that it was stressful for staff as well,” Bennett said, but he said there was no evidence so far of long-term damage to children. “To be honest, the picture on behaviour we’re seeing is reasonably consistent with the behaviour we were seeing before the pandemic.”
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