«To what extent is behaviour a problem in English schools? Exploring the scale and prevalence of deficits in classroom climate Terry Haydn* University ...»
Review of Education
Vol. 2, No. 1, February 2014, pp. 31–64
To what extent is behaviour a problem in
English schools? Exploring the scale and
prevalence of deficits in classroom climate
University of East Anglia, UK
The working atmosphere in the classroom is an important variable in the process of education in
schools, with several studies suggesting that classroom climate is an important influence on pupil
attainment. There are wide differences in the extent to which classroom climate is considered to be a problem in English schools. Some ‘official’ reports suggest that behaviour in schools is ‘satisfac- tory or better’ in the vast majority of schools; other sources have pointed to behaviour being a seri- ous and widespread problem. The paper details four studies conducted over the past decade which aimed to explore these disparities. The aim of the research was to gain a more accurate insight into the extent to which deficits in classroom climate limit educational attainment and equality of educa- tional opportunity in English schools. The findings question the suggestion that behaviour is satis- factory or better in 99.7% of English schools and the concluding section suggests ways in which deficits in classroom climate might be addressed. Although the study is limited to classrooms in England, OECD studies suggest that deficits in the working atmosphere in classrooms occur in many countries. The study therefore has potential relevance for education systems in other countries.
Classroom climate as a concern of educational research Classroom climate is one strand within the broader field of research into classroom management and pupil behaviour (Evertson & Weinstein, 2006). Fraser argues that the concept of classroom climate is difficult to define in precise terms, describing it as a ‘subtle and nebulous notion’, embracing ‘climate, ambience, tone, atmosphere and ethos’ (Fraser, 1989, p. 307). Interest in classroom climate can be traced back to (at least) as far as the work of Walberg and Anderson in the 1960s, and their test- ing of the Getzels–Thelen theory of the classroom as a social system (Walburg & Anderson, 1968). As with Anderson’s ‘Learning environment inventory’ (Anderson, 1973), and Moos and Trickett’s ‘Classroom Environment Scale’ (Moos & Trickett, 1974), classroom climate research has often positioned itself within the ‘ecological’ strand of approaches to research into classroom management issues (Doyle, 2006).
The majority of these studies, including those of Eder (1996, 1998) and Engels et al.
(2000) focused on pupil perspectives on classroom climate. Eder and Mayr’s ‘Linzer questionnaire of school and classroom climate’ (Eder & Mayr, 2000) made the point *School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, UK.
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32 T. Haydn that classroom climate was a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. The questionnaire contained 42 questions, and attempted to elicit information about 14 facets of pupils’ experience of the classroom and the school, including dimensions of social warmth, strictness/control, peer group pressure and pressure to conform, learning community, rivalry and perturbation. Saldern and Littig’s (1987) ‘Landau social climate scale for grades 4–13’ also identified a wide range of factors influencing classroom climate. Other researchers have attempted to focus on particular aspects of classroom climate, rather than exploring the breadth of factors which might influence classroom climate. Peter and Dalbert (2010) attempted to assess classroom climate through the study of just two factors: pupil willingness to learn, and pupils’ sense of community; Wubbels et al. (2006) focused on the influence of teacherstudent relationships on classroom climate. Other studies on classroom climate focused on social or external influences on pupils’ behaviour and attitudes to school (see, for instance, Perry & Weinstein, 1998). More recently, research into classroom climate has focused on the teacher’s skills of managing culturally diverse classrooms as a determinant of classroom climate (Siwatu et al., 2013).
Three of the four studies described focus on teacher perspectives on classroom climate, rather than the emphasis on pupil perspective which has dominated much of the previous research in this field. All four studies focus primarily on the issue of pupil behaviour, and the degree to which teachers feel that they are able to create and maintain a working atmosphere in the classroom which is ideally conducive to learning.
Why is classroom climate an important issue?
The idea that the working atmosphere in the classroom can have a negative impact on pupil attainment is not a new one (Rutter et al., 1979; Rutter & Maughan, 2002).
Van Tartwijk and Hammerness (2011, p. 109) make the (perhaps obvious) point that ‘learning is much more difficult, if not impossible, in a disorderly environment’ (see also Marzano et al., 2003). More recently, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools has argued that the progress of over 700,000 pupils in English schools is being impeded by low level disruption (Ofsted, 2013, p. 9).
Some studies have suggested than the working atmosphere in the classroom, and standards of pupil behaviour are major influences on how well pupils are likely to achieve. The Hay McBer Report (2000) on effective teaching suggested that disruption and classroom climate were two of the most significant influences on pupils’ learning opportunities and progress. Commenting on a summary of research on effective teaching in the US, Wragg (1997, p. 44) also concluded that ‘class management seemed to bear most strongly on how well pupils achieved’. Elliott and Phuong-Mai (2008) argue that several major studies on comparative international performance in education suggest that poor levels of classroom behaviour may well account in part for the superior performance of Russian and Chinese pupils compared to their English and US counterparts.
There are also important issues of equality of educational opportunity related to the issue of classroom climate. As I have argued elsewhere (Haydn, 2012), one of the biggest inequalities of opportunity in the English education system is whether pupils are in classrooms which are under the relaxed and assured control of their teachers or
in classrooms where the teacher is not in complete control of the lesson, and some pupils may be disrupting the learning of others.
Another area where classroom climate may have an important influence on educational systems and outcomes is in the field of teacher recruitment and retention.
There are very few things in professional life less edifying than being, in effect, locked in a room with 30 children not fully under your control. In England, over 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualification, and difficulties in coping with poor pupil behaviour emerges as one of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving teaching (Cockburn & Haydn, 2004; Barmby, 2006). In addition to learning deficits caused by poor classroom climate, Ronfeldt et al. (2013) have pointed out that high levels of teacher attrition and turnover also have a damaging effect on pupil attainment.
The context of the research: differing views on the problem of behaviour in English schools For the past two decades, there have been differing views expressed about the extent to which behaviour is a problem in English schools. In 1994, the then Secretary of State for Education stated that poor pupil behaviour affects ‘a small number of pupils in a small number of schools’ (Patten, 1994). In the same year, Claus Moser argued that in inner-city areas, the problem of indiscipline in schools was much more common and that ‘tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of children still have totally unacceptable educational experiences, disadvantaging them for life’, because teachers were able to do no more than ‘crowd control’ (Moser, 1994). Michael Barber’s (1994) survey of 10,000 secondary school pupils in the midlands appeared to lend support to Moser’s view. The survey reported that 25% of pupils acknowledged behaving badly in school, and 33% reported that they encountered disruption in class on a daily basis. Barber argued that ‘a disruptive minority of 10–15% of pupils are seriously undermining the quality of education in as many as half of all secondary schools’ (Barber, 1994). Citing the same study, he claimed that 92% of pupils in their GCSE exam year (for pupils aged 16) suffered from disruption to their learning through poor pupil behaviour.
Nearly 20 years on, we appear to be no nearer a consensus on the extent to which behaviour is a problem in schools. The Steer Report, a government commissioned enquiry into the issue of behaviour in schools reported a very positive and reassuring picture, stating that ‘the overall standard of behaviour achieved by schools is good and has improved in recent years’, noting ‘a steady rise in standards’ (Steer, 2009, p. 4).
However, as in the 1990s, there are some inconsistencies and disparities in the picture which is presented about behaviour in English schools. In spite of the evidence contained in the Steer Report and successive Ofsted inspection reports, the statements of politicians are at odds with the suggestion that behaviour is less than satisfactory in only 0.3% of schools (Department for Education, 2012a). In a ‘Leaders’ Debate’ on 15 April 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron cited a figure of 17,000 assaults on teachers as ‘a typical year now... We’ve got a real problem here’ (Cameron, 2010). Schools Minister Nick Gibb (2012) has argued for ‘order to be restored in © 2014 The Authors Review of Education published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Educational Research Association.
34 T. Haydn the classroom’, and Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove (2010) announced that he would ‘not rest when the learning of thousands of children who are desperate to do well and get on is disrupted in classrooms where discipline has broken down’. The disparity between these statements and the picture presented by Ofsted and Steer raises the question of whether politicians are exaggerating the scale and prevalence of behaviour problems in English schools, and ‘talking up’ the issue for political purposes. However, there is evidence which questions the fairly rosy picture painted by Ofsted and Steer, including recent surveys of teachers and head teachers in England.
A Times Educational Supplement survey of 400 heads found that 35% of heads believed that pupil behaviour had deteriorated over the past 12 years (TES, 2010), and an Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) survey of over a thousand teachers reported that 60% of them believed that they had disruptive pupils in their classrooms, with 98% reporting that this had at times resulted in disruption of pupils’ work (ATL, 2009). An earlier survey of teachers by the NUT found that 69% of teachers reported experience of disruptive behaviour ‘weekly or more frequently (Neill, 2001).
Surveys of pupil perceptions of classroom climate also suggest that disruption is not confined to a small number of inner-city schools. A recent PISA report stated that in England, 31% of pupils felt that ‘in most or all lessons... there is noise and disorder’ (Bradshaw et al., 2010), and Chamberlain et al. (2011) reported that a majority of pupils in England said that they had experienced disruption to their learning.
The figure of 330,000 pupil exclusions in 2010–2011 (DfE, 2012b) also sits uneasily with the generally positive picture presented by the Steer Report and recent Ofsted judgements on the proportion of schools which were deemed to be less than satisfactory in terms of pupil behaviour. Even though only 5080 of these exclusions were permanent, given that the most common reason for exclusions of all types was persistent disruptive behaviour (accounting for 33.7% of permanent exclusions and 24.8% of fixed period exclusions from all schools), it seems unlikely that this disruption was limited to the 0.3% of schools where behaviour was deemed by Ofsted to be satisfactory or better. Given the fact that Ofsted figures on exclusions do not take account of ‘managed moves’ and ‘unofficial’ exclusions (Domokos, 2012), even these figures may understate the number of exclusions from English schools.
Recently published teacher biographies (Birbalsingh, 2011; Carroll, 2011) also claim that the scale of disorder in schools sometimes goes well beyond the picture of ‘largely low level disruption’ presented by the Elton and Steer Reports (Elton, 1989;
Steer, 2009). The picture is further complicated by media coverage of the issue of behaviour in schools, which has sometimes served to sensationalise the issue (see Haydn, 2012, pp. 7–8, for some examples of this).
Thus, over the past six years, ‘official’ reports on behaviour in schools (Ofsted reports, and the government commissioned 2009 Steer Report on behaviour in schools), have presented a very positive picture of classroom climate and pupil behaviour, with Ofsted consistently reporting that behaviour was satisfactory or better in over 90% of schools (Ofsted, 2006, 2010, 2012; Morris-King, 2011), a figure rising to 99.7% in 2012 (Department for Education, 2012a). This portrayal of classroom climate and pupil behaviour has been challenged by other sources. In December
2012, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools painted a less positive picture of behaviour in schools, which is at odds with the ‘99.7% satisfactory or better’ figure cited by the Department for Education (based on Ofsted inspection reports) in 2012 (Department for Education, 2012a).