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Discipline is the missing part of the school jigsaw

There’s no denying that Australian schools have a behaviour problem, but it could be turned around with the NSW Government’s plan to appoint a ‘behaviour tsar’.

By international standards, Australia has some of the most disruptive classrooms in the world. On the OECD’s index of disciplinary climate, Australia ranks at 70th out of 77 school systems — and has been sliding down the ranks.

Two in five students say their classmates don’t listen to what their teacher says. And almost half say there is noise and disorder in most or all lessons.

The result is that too many students spend unnecessary time off-task and don’t receive the amount of effective teaching time they need. As is often the case, students in more disadvantaged schools are likely to suffer the most.

This has clear impacts on students’ outcomes — both in academic terms and their wider wellbeing.

PISA data shows 15-year-old students in classes with a poor disciplinary climate are around seven months behind in their learning compared to their peers in more disciplined classes.

In addition to the academic harm, students in less disciplined classrooms record a lower sense of belonging and life satisfaction and are more likely to be in a school where bullying is frequent.

But it also adversely impacts upon teachers. Those who work in more disruptive schools also report lower job satisfaction and less confidence in their work.

Handling students’ behaviour is regularly reported among the greatest difficulties teachers face. And yet, many graduate teachers are not adequately prepared in classroom management during their training.

While appointing an individual as a behavioural advisor doesn’t turn around results overnight, it does send a powerful signal that can align the efforts of policymakers, educators, and parents.

In the UK, the government recognised the need to act and appointed its own behaviour tsar, Tom Bennett.

Bennett has been a champion for thousands of educators in building their capacity in running the room. His impact in many schools has been transformational — by bringing educational evidence to the table and delivering valuable training to teachers and principals.

Yet, educational ideologues oppose efforts to improve the disciplinary climate within schools; often based on romanticised ideas about why students behave as they do.

According to Bennett’s progressive critics, how students conduct themselves is simply a matter of their personal expression and educators should welcome, rather than correct, this — even when it may come at the harm of students. But, speaking at the Centre for Independent Studies in June, Bennett labelled this mistaken view as “the kryptonite for what children actually need in order flourish, thrive, and be safe.”

What is especially jarring is that those who appear to be most opposed to raising classroom management also claim to be those most enthusiastic about redressing societal inequities.

The irony is that, in denying disadvantaged students the calm learning environments needed to succeed, they consign them to yet greater educational odds to be overcome.

In the UK’s Michaela Community School, its iconic leader, Katharine Birbalsingh is routinely derided as ‘Britain’s strictest headmistress’ by her opponents for her no-nonsense approach to school discipline.

And yet you would be hard-pressed to find any individual who has done more to raise the life prospects of the students under her charge.

Despite having an intake of students among the most disadvantaged, the outcomes of its students are among the nation’s best. Last year, her accomplishments were recognised by her appointment as Chair of the Social Mobility Commission.

Here in Australia, we would do well to heed the advice of experts like Bennett and Birbalsingh, so we can replicate their efforts and bring more supportive learning environments to our schools.

They — among others — have already laid out a playbook for success. With the right tools, preparation, practice, and support, teachers can be given every possible chance to successfully run even the most challenging rooms.

The Australian Education Research Organisation lists among its evidence-based practices for classroom management: explicit teaching, modelling appropriate behaviour, and holding students to high standards. In well-run rooms, there are routines, clear expectations for how to behave, and students are actively engaged in learning.

It’s painfully obvious that successful schooling starts with classrooms that allow all students to learn. Promoting better learning environments that bring disruptive classrooms back under control is non-negotiable, if we are to turn around education outcomes.

A new behaviour focus should be welcomed by school leaders, teachers, and parents.

Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Pixabay