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And now for the behaviour debate Part 2

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The importance of language

 I have been finding the importance of language more and more fascinating as we have gone through the Coronavirus crisis. It shapes and conditions our thinking. I especially love the idea of “independence day” which turned out to be more to do with the inalienable right to get hammered, which, I think, was established through the Glorious Revolution on 1688, than any old fashioned ideas about political liberty.

It has been intriguing to see how vital the absolute entitlement to sunbathing has become. Sod that skin cancer nonsense, every British person has a birthright to get out there, get their kit off and get crimson.

Apparently, that is now a core freedom too.

We have also redefined words like “shambles” so a botched partial reopening of schools in England, following on from a chaotic voucher scheme, ever-changing advice, generally issued too late and often changed before it could be implemented, is not a “shambles”.

Apparently, it is a coherent strategy and a demonstration of agility in the face of a rapidly changing situation

There are some interesting questions about what “wellbeing” means, given that English schools received their guidance on wellbeing on a Sunday around 10.00. Some might dare to suggest that was more of a threat to “wellbeing” than a support for it.

The debates in education are absolutely bedevilled by issues around language

How often are we now hearing the language of “catch-up” in relation to children’s “recovery” from the disruption of lockdown?

The whole idea of “catch-up” is based on the idea that children are in a race, that their course is marked out and set against a notional timescale that should be met, in lockstep, by all learners. The curriculum is king; children need to get on the pathway that it sets. Deadlines for assessment are virtually inviolable, so we need to hothouse children to meet these deadlines. There are even suggestions in England that only parts of the curriculum might have regal status and that whole areas of it might be abandoned so that children can “catch-up” in the parts that really, really matter. There have been recent suggestions in Scotland from the self-commissioned Commission on School Reform which is arguing for extended school days to ensure that children “catch up”

This deification of curriculum and assessment is the antithesis of a child-centred approach where schools take account of the needs of the child and there is a willingness to change the pace, amend the course and think about all children making progress measured against their own particular  starting points, rather than the progress of others. In a child-centred world we would be looking to retimetable exams or even rethink assessment entirely. That  is the kind of thinking which leads to a language around the transition from primary to secondary schools that speaks of getting the children ready for the school and never getting the school ready for the children

In the world of that language, we need discipline, we need encouragement and we need sanctions. The paths are set and children need to be driven along them. We exacerbate this by creating a world where schools are set against one another in league tables and forced to compete in a world of parental choice. Like children, schools must also reach standards and catch up if they fall behind and, for schools to achieve that, children must be driven to climb whatever ladder most benefits the school’s progress. We have moved a long way from the 1947 Fyfe report on Secondary education in Scotland, which argued –

“It is clear, therefore, that our supreme requirement of the secondary school must be something which hitherto has been much less highly regarded, that it should provide a rich social environment where adolescence grows in character and understanding through the interplay of personalities rather than by the imparting of knowledge. Education thus presents itself as at once preparation for life and an irreplaceable part of life itself: hence, the good school is to be assessed not by any tale of examination successes, however impressive, but by the extent to which it has filled the years of youth with security, graciousness and ordered freedom, and has thus been a seed-bed for the flowering in due season of all that is of good report.”

This is a powerful example of an argument where philosophy, pedagogy, curriculum and  behaviour no longer function as separate discussions. They are linked in a wider discussion about culture where consistency is not simply about sanctions, but about everything we do in our schools. We need this over-riding clarity, because we will be inconsistent as teachers or classroom assistants. It is part of being human. We will make different decisions depending on our mood, on how exhausted we are, on a whole range of different factors. We will also make mistakes. That’s part of being human too.

We will achieve consistency more often if we think and talk about what we believe about children and about people. We will get things right more often than we get them wrong if we are clear about what matters in our schools. We will thrive when we empower staff and it always amuses me when people advocate teacher empowerment and a commitment to zero tolerance towards pupils. How are teachers empowered if they are not encouraged to exercise judgement in the most fundamental relationship in their schools?

A lot of my sense of the importance of language, philosophy and culture is captured in the experience of Pitteuchar East Primary school in Glenrothes,, where the headteacher, the wonderful Jennifer Knussen, reported that everything in the school changed when they “stopped talking about challenging behaviour and started talking about distressed behaviour”

Maybe there is a lesson there for all of us.