Tackling behaviour to improve learning – a rocky road but we’re getting there

Last year I wrote a post called ‘Progress on behaviour – Haven’t I seen this graph somewhere before’ about work I had been leading on improving the behaviour of pupil premium students for whom we had identified poor behaviour as the main inhibitor to learning. That became my most read post by quite a long margin. The main point I made was that any improvements we achieved were not through a straightforward upward path, but through a messy reality including plateaus and setbacks, with any progress emerging only through perseverance. Here, I’ll discuss what impact our work on behaviour has had on the progress in learning of the children involved.

In my original post I identified three different ‘response types’ among the students involved:

  1. Pupils who reacted quickly to interventions and made rapid improvements in behaviour.
  2. Pupils who took longer to react and/or had more frequent setbacks, so made more gradual progress, with improvement taking longer.
  3. Pupils who did not seem to respond to interventions and whose behaviour did not improve, or even deteriorated.


Impact of Behaviour shift on learning

Not surprisingly, any consequent improvement in academic progress followed the same pattern, with the group of pupils who achieved the most rapid turn-around in their behaviour also making the greatest progress. 

The graph shows the correlation between shift in behaviour (measured using our school conduct points system) and GCSE value-added (through a simple comparison of prediction and end of year results, using old money A*=8, A=7, etc) for Key Stage 4 students. For year 11 the end results were actual exam results, for year 10 they were end of year assessments.


There is a statistically significant positive correlation between improved behaviour and value added (Pearson’s r=0.715 exceeding the critical value of 0.400 for p<0.05, N=18). 

Now, I know this isn’t exactly headline news: improving behaviour leads to a better chance of academic success. I do think it’s important. The rocky road of ups and downs that I described in my original post ultimately led to real positive gains for most of the students involved. Remember, they were those with the worst behaviour at the start of the year. This shows us that when the going is tough, and when there are setbacks, it really is worth persevering with these students. 

Broadly, the three student response types resulted in these outcomes:

  1. Rapid improvements in behaviour led to students generally achieving(and sometimes exceeding) their predicted grades.
  2. Students who made more gradual improvement picked up their performance but still had a slightly negative VA. Often other factors had a significant impact, including poor attendance, or the impact of events outside school.
  3. Students who did not improve their behaviour had markedly negative VA. this was often characterised by erratic attendance, lack of cooperation with the basics of the school code of conduct and, sometimes, difficulty in engaging parents.

Certainly for group 2, we have taken the view that earlier identification would have helped secure faster improvements in behaviour and better academic outcomes. We drew up our new student groups last term, so we were ready to proceed right from the start of the new school year in September. For the same reason, we’re also making sure we tackle attendance issues much more quickly. The toughest challenge is those students in group 3. We’re working so that our pastoral and inclusion teams are communicating more closely to respond to behaviours that may result from special educational needs, and use behaviours to identify unmet needs. We are also responding to the fact that the group of pupil premium students generally responded more gradually than their peers by making sure that, as a whole school, we our applying our ‘Pupil Premium First’ policy consistently.

My next job is to analyse the progress of the groups we set up because poor attendance was the main inhibitor to learning. As always, I welcome any comments or suggestions you may have.

No more mobiles – the first week

At the start of September, I wrote my post ‘No more mobiles’ about why we took the decision to ban mobile phones from school. There were several reasons, the foremost being the level of distraction they created. That original post generated quite a bit of interest, so this is my first update on how our decision is going, based on the first week back at school.

On the first day back everything went very smoothly. We had made the decision to give students warnings and literally only a handful them needed a reminder about having their phone out, or headphones round their neck. All responded straight away, a couple saying it was news to them. Several students proffered their phones for safe-keeping at reception in the morning but mostly there was no phone in evidence. It’s likely that most had decided to keep their phone off and in their bag. I only spotted one student at lunchtime with their head almost inside their bag – “I’m just putting it in my bag.” The first day back usually goes smoothly though, doesn’t it?

The rest of the first week continued much the same way however. By Friday several staff reported that they had given reminders / warnings to students, but students had responded quickly and put their phone away. Colleagues also said that students were giving each other reminders not to have phones out.

What surprised me was the lack of complaint or questions from students. I had thought that the new policy wasn’t a change as far as lessons went, but at break and lunchtime, some students would might have difficulty adapting. This just didn’t happen. Apart from the few reminders I mentioned, phones weren’t in evidence in the cafeteria, indoor social area, playground or the field. 

So what were students doing if they weren’t on their phones? Talking to each other, face to face, in groups, chatting, smiling, laughing! I also think there were more playing sport, skateboarding, etc. These are just casual observations – most pupils chatted in groups last year, with maybe one in four on a phone at the same time, more were outside playing but we had good weather last week. Colleagues report a ‘renewed focus’ among students, but then it was the first week of the year. We will need to see how things develop as the year progresses.

Did we have to confiscate any phones? Yes, six from five pupils, who did not respond to reminders (that’s  about 0.4% of students). In my first post on this I listed four reasons for our decision to ban mobiles:

  1. Distraction, most likely to be those who had fallen behind their peers and could least afford it.
  2. The high proportion of behaviour incidents in school that centred on phone usage. 
  3. Use of social media in bullying (and other interpersonal  nastiness).
  4. Thankfully much less frequent and involving very small numbers of pupils, the use of mobile phones in the involvement of children, by older peers and adults in substance abuse, crime, and CSE. 

In all five cases, confiscation was because of 1 – distraction from getting to a lesson on time – moved to 2 by the students’ choice to ignore a warning. In a couple  of cases there may be a connection to 4, readers will appreciate that I cannot write more on that.

This may or may not turn out to be representative of the year ahead, we shall see. I aim to write another update later in the autumn term. As always, your comments are very welcome.

No more mobiles 

From September we are banning the use of mobile phones in the secondary phase of our all-through school (we have never allowed them at primary). As this is a contentious issue, I’m going to blog about how it works and what issues arise.

This first post is about why we took the decision.

Our school opened in 2003, combining former middle and upper schools. We moved into new buildings in 2006 and opened our primary phase in 2012. We have grown as as school in parallel with the growth in mobile phone use by children and the development of smartphone technology. Up to now our policy has been that mobile phones should be off and put away in lessons (unless a teacher specifies their use for an educational purpose) but can be used at break or lunch. 

Last year a team at the LSE produced this paper on the positive impact on exam results at schools which had banned mobile phones – Ill communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance. The results were clear-cut and chimed with the concerns that mobiles, especially mobile access to social media were a distraction to students. Nevertheless, we could also see that there could be educational advantages in using this technology, and that we could involve students in the decision. We spent a year monitoring the impact of mobiles. Our Principal spoke to students in assembly about the research on mobiles, how persuasive the evidence was for a ban, and how we would be considering it.

At the end of last term we announced the new rule, publishing it in our newsletter. We took many factors into consideration but four predominated in our thinking:

  1. A proportion of students are distracted by social media. As the LSE research found, these were more likely to be those who had fallen behind their peers and could least afford the distraction.
  2. A high proportion of behaviour incidents in school centred on phone usage. This was a minority of students but took up a disproportionate amount of staff time.
  3. In almost all incidents of bullying (and one-off interpersonal nastiness) social media was a key component. Incidents were prolonged and magnified because of social media comment. This involved a small number of students but a vast amount of staff time.
  4. Mobile phones are a central aspect of the involvement of children, by older peers and adults in substance abuse, crime, and CSE. Thankfully this involved only a very small number of children but they are the most vulnerable of those in our care.

The most frequent educational uses of phones, outside of computing lessons. were recording homework or for reference (e.g. dictionary, web search). Other resources for these are available to all students.

    In view of all this took the decision to ban mobiles in schools. We have addressed parental concerns about safety on the journey to and from school by collecting phones at the start of the day  and handing them back at the end (yes, that has required logistical planning). If a pupil keeps their phone off and in their bag all day we will be none the wiser, of course, but if a phone is used it will be confiscated until a parent / carer can collect it. The exception we have made is students with special needs or disabilities, or who have English as an additional language and use specific apps to help them access the curriculum.

    All that has been theory up to now; we start on Monday 5th September. I’ll be posting updates on how it goes. Your comments are always welcome and I’d be interested in hearing how other schools address this issue.

    Top Ten Signs that We’re Back to School

    Has ‘Back to School’ come as a bit of a shock? Here are my top ten signs that the lovely long Summer holiday is over and that the new school year has started. How many have happened to you?

    1. You breathe out a sigh of relief that the waistband of your work clothes still fits – and a button pops off.
    2. When you finally find your lanyard again you realise that the age gap between your staff ID photo and reality is now pushing the bounds of credulity.
    3. As a result of the ‘Summer IT Upgrade‘ your computer crashes when you try to log in (after finally remembering what your password was).
    4. When you do succeed in logging in, you find there are now 247 emails in your inbox.
    5. During the start of term INSET day you find that at least a dozen new educational acronyms (NEAs) have been invented since the end of last term.
    6. On the first day that the pupils return someone asks ‘Sir?’ / ‘Miss?’ And for a moment you wonder who they’re talking to.
    7. The bells, the bells! Your life becomes Pavlovian again.
    8. You scald yourself with your coffee, no longer having the luxury of time to let it cool down.
    9. You spend the latter half of the morning with your legs crossed because you can no longer just pop to the loo when you need to.
    10. After your first busy day, you realise with a sigh that you have to get up at THAT TIME again tomorrow… and tomorrow…

    So, how many did you score out of ten at the start of this term?! Anything I missed? What would you put in your top ten?

    Remember, though, what we do makes a real difference to the children we teach. And just think: some people have jobs where they actually have time to be bored!

    If things are getting a bit much, you might want to have a look at my post on Workable Wellbeing.

    New Specification AS – Waiting for Results Day

    I originally wrote this a few days before the 2016 AS and A Level results came out. I added the postscript after the dust had settled on results day.

    I teach psychology, one on the new AS specifications taught from September 2015. This Summer’s AS exams were the first test of the new specification, my teaching of it and interpretation of the assessment criteria. That adds a little spice to the wait for results day, for teachers as well as students!

    We opted for the AQA specification, and had done the AQA A specification previously. There was really good support for the new specification from this exam board and a wealth of sample assessments, Mark schemes and commentaries. The last time the specification changed, there were considerable differences in the style of some questions from the sample materials, but this wasn’t the case this time round. I’m aware, however that odd things can happen in the first year of a new exam and research commissioned by the DFE shows that the grade distributions can plateau or fall when specifications change, as for A levels in 2010 and GCSEs in 2011 (DFE RB203, March 2012). It’s this knowledge that means that, irrespective of how long I’ve been teaching, how much I prepared for the new course, how well the students performed in internal assessments or PPEs, I can’t be as sure of how they will do in the actual exams as I was the year before.

    I was pleased to see that Ofqual are also aware of the issues surrounding assessment of the new qualifications and say they have taken steps to ensure standardisation across the transition, so that students examined in the first year of a new course are not penalised. They also plan to publish their analysis of the results on AS results day (you can read the Ofqual blog post on setting standards for new AS qualifications here). I haven’t been impressed with some strategies used to ‘maintain standards’ especially moving grade boundaries (as you can read in my post Beating the Bounds from last year), but I’m hoping that this move to be ahead of the curve and transparent with a prompt statistical analysis is a positive one.

    So, like my students, I’ll be awaiting the results a little nervously this year – probably good for me to feel a little of what it’s like in their shoes, but I’m hoping that lessons have been from the introduction of new assessments in the past, so results will be a true indication of students’ performance.

    Postscript 18/8/17

    The results are now all in, I now now how my own students did in their exams and Ofqual have published their promised analysis (read it here).

    Nationally, the picture seems fairly stable with a 1% increase for A grades at AS continuing a trend (although only 0.2% for psychology). In general Ofqual say the outcomes for the new AS exams were similar to those taken by 17 year olds last year.

    As for my own students, much the same story. There was a slightly positive VA versus forecasts overall, so I didn’t need to worry and will have a keen bunch to embark on the first run of ‘A level Year 2’ (we decided to enter everyone for AS this time round).

    I hope your experiences with the A Level & BTEC were similarly positive.

    Why do education books cost so much? 

    This post is a bit different, just a question: why do books on education cost so much? I’m not moaning (although I am bemoaning the fact that I just can’t afford to read all the great books out there), I just want to know the answer. I can’t make the figures add up and there doesn’t seem to be any hard information available.

    I won’t name publishers, authors or titles, but there are a few recently published books I’d like to read at the moment. If you’re a teacher using social media you’ll have heard of them. They are all under 200 pages – that’s a slim volume – and apart from the cover utilise no colour printing. Each is currently priced from £16.99 to £24.99. For that same money you could get a newly published hardback novel or an all-singing, all-dancing, exam board endorsed, full colour A level textbook complete with a supporting website and possibly an app.

    So why so much? I don’t begrudge anyone their fair due – authors, editors, printers, binders, retailers and publishers all deserve their cut, and I appreciate that the physical print publishing industry is having a tough time. I have, however, found it difficult to find break-downs of costs.

    Zachary Crockett used his experiences working in the publishing of HE textbooks in the US to produce this breakdown in his 2013 article Why are textbooks so expensive?:

    • 5% Production costs
    • 15% Author Royalties 
    • 32% Editorial costs 
    • 15% Marketing
    • 1% Shipping
    • 22% Profit

    Of course taxes will be levied on the profit and there will be other costs such as depreciation. Nevertheless, this gives us an idea of the breakdown of the wholesale price. Retailers have their own costs and profit margin so will add around 25% mark-up on the wholesale price.

    I understand that books aimed at teachers are aimed at a specialised small market (although there are nearly half a million of us in the UK),  so overheads can’t be spread across large volume sales, but actual production costs are a small part of the total price, and surely editorial input is proportional to the length off a book. Presumably a slim 160 page volume requires less input than a 450 page novel? Surely the marketing budget will be proportional to the size of the market? Usually I hear about new books because someone tweets about them – often the author.

    So, how do the costs work? Where does the money go? Why are education books so expensive? I’d really like to know, because if they were cheaper I’d be buying two or three of those I mentioned, rather than deciding on just one.

    Seymour Papert: Computing and Creativity

    Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist and educational philosopher died on 31st July, aged 88. He was a passionate advocate for computing in education, not because he thought technology could provide useful teaching tools, but believed programming could unleash the creativity of children. 

    Born in South Africa, Papert studied mathematics, going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge, and then to work with Jean Piaget in Geneva. He later drew on Piaget’s ideas while developing the Logo programming language and its associated floor ‘turtle’ at MIT. His aim was a simple programming language which nevertheless included the versatility to solve complex problems. The experience of Logo for many children in the 80s & 90s will have been using a physical or screen turtle to draw geometrical shapes. Papert saw this as important, giving children a way of exploring geometrical & mathematical concepts, but he  only intended this as the start. Logo was conceived to put the child in charge of this exploration; connecting the abstract to the concrete, learning creative problem solving, and gaining mastery of new technology as active developers, rather than just passive users. Sadly for many children in the UK their experience of Logo may not have gone much beyond following instructions on a worksheet to draw shapes on a screen, the antithesis of what Papert intended. For those, however, who were allowed to explore logo further, or it’s commercial inceptions such as Lego Mindstorms, a world of possibilities opened up.

    Logo may no longer be the first programming language of choice in schools, but several versions are still popular and the derivative NetLogo modelling tool is still going strong. The principles (and particularly turtle graphics coding commands) live on in tools such as Scratch and text-based languages like Python. I have recently taught some computing at KS4 after a break from the subject of ten years. I’m pleased to see students captivated by the the ability that coding gives them to take charge of a task and create imaginative (and often elegant) solutions. When I look at the youngest pupils in our all-through school embarking on their journey into computing, I can only wonder at what they will be achieving the next ten years. I think we need to understand that, while we teachers may be the facilitators, it will be them taking us there, not the other way around. I believe a curriculum and pedagogy based on creative exploration would be a legacy of which Seymour Papert would approve. 

    As ever, I welcome constructive comments. If you want to read more about Papert’s contribution to computing and creativity in schools, I recommend this excellent article Papert, Turtles and Creativity written in 2015 by Miles Berry. 

    NetLogo is a programming language developed by Uri Wilensky at Northwestern University and is available here.

    Lego MINDSTORMS is a trademark of the Lego Group.

    Python is an educational programming language produced by the Python Software Foundation.

    Scratch is a free first programming tool developed by the MIT Media Lab and is available here.

    Image created using Logo interpreter by Joshua Bell.

    pendown