Although difficult at times, it is important that schools make a stance on what counts as social behaviour, says headteacher Neil Berry

It is one of the core purposes of education to support social standards for the benefit of society at large. Although this poses some real difficulties in a plural society, I believe – optimist that I am – that there is still much that schools can achieve in this area.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines standard as: ‘A thing or quality or specification by which something may be tested.’ This means that there must be a paradigm that schools can draw on to teach their students the things that constitute good manners. This gives us a difficulty because… there is not one.

Some behaviours, which fall in the category of good manners, are more universally accepted than others. It surprises me that there has been no attempt that I know of to create a statement for use in schools in the 21st century of what behaviour should be considered acceptable to all right-minded members of society and to which all stakeholders in education can sign up.

There is much rhetoric but little substance when this issue is discussed because I believe that there is still some confusion between various groups as to minimum standards of courtesy and consideration for others. Whether it is for reasons of preference, class or lifestyle, the lack of an agreed notion of good manners and acceptable behaviour can often become a real barrier to both schools and students reaching their full potential – and have potentially disastrous consequences for society.

An example of this is when parents say to their child, as a consequence of something that happens in school, ‘If he hits you, hit him back.’ Such a simple statement in times gone by would have not seemed particularly contentious, but it is now. Violence is far too common and is quite rightly seen as beyond the pale, whatever the provocation.

Poor role models
Unfortunately, some parents do not support this view. They believe that if their son/daughter is hit, a swift, painful rejoinder will stop this reoccurring. My experience is that it does not. Indeed, it often makes matters worse, as either other children or adults – sometimes both – are drawn into a petty squabble which then becomes a long-term vendetta with consequences that were unimaginable to the initial protagonists. This can cause problems for the community outside school and is often not a high priority for the police. Almost inevitably, it is left to the school to attempt to resolve.

Adults often let children down by giving examples of poor behaviour. At school we make students queue in an orderly way for lunch; anyone pushing in is taken to task and sent to the back of the line. It works, the students see it as fair, and expect the rules to be enforced.

Compare this with what happens at the bus stop after school when there is a free for all with adults and students pushing into the queue and on to the bus seemingly with little regard for each other. Spitting in the street, dropping litter, committing vandalism, writing graffiti, bullying, swearing and using threatening/violent behaviour are types of behaviour that are engaged in by students and adults alike, often both groups seeing the other as the greatest source of these problems.

I am aware that there is sometimes almost a sense of hopelessness regarding the dynamics created by groups of school children, older teenagers of 16 to 19 years of age and random members of the public when tension occurs. In situations like this we have to ask the question of every agency that should be involved: What can we do to make situations like this better?

Setting and enforcing standards
Ideally there would be a consensus relating to good manners and appropriate behaviour. However, in the absence of such common ground, the way forward can only be by schools deciding what standards they are going to set and then enforcing them. This is painfully obvious but is nevertheless a challenge.

In social situations sometimes students do not how to behave, never having been exposed to such things as table manners, listening to others politely and not shouting them down, or dealing with belching or other bodily noises. It is therefore necessary to create social benchmarking such as:

  • Violence, however understandable in some circumstances, is always wrong, and should never occur.
  • Think before you speak and how your words might affect other people and the way they feel.
  • It is the mark of a civilised person to treat others in the way that they would wish to be treated.

These three statements are easy to understand and should be signed up to by every member of the school community and their parents. The implementation of types of behaviour to support these statements is of course the essence of what the school could achieve.

My experience is that things can and do get better within a school if the students see their teachers as role models where good manners are concerned and where it is deliberate school policy for the students to be listened to by the staff. The latter means that a genuine dialogue takes place, rather than students being spoken to, shouted at or told to do things without the reasons for doing X or Y being explained calmly by the staff.

I know that this can be difficult in a pressurised school situation, but it is essential that students are spoken to in a way that is consistent and universal within the school. If they are spoken to in an aggressive or offhand way then it is surely the way that they will react to others if they see themselves in an authority position in relation to peers. No one likes to be treated in this way and, as we know, young people sometimes articulate their frustrations with fists and boots rather than words.

Instilling notions of respect
So what am I saying?

By treating students as intelligent beings and keeping calm in all situations, teachers have the best chance of instilling the notions of respect, courtesy to all and the good manners that everyone hopes to see as a more common phenomenon. An agreed standard of good behaviour/manners should be drawn up within a school in the absence of any definite guidance from the DCSF. Students, parents and teachers should work together on this and then the work really begins to establish this as part of the institutional culture of the school.

That’s the easiest part. Many schools are judged, often unfairly, on their performance by the way that the students behave on the way to and from school and at the weekend (sometimes even the school holidays.) This reminds me of the recent call from the police to football clubs to take more responsibility for their fans as they make their way to and from the stadium to the football match. By this the police mean that the clubs should contribute towards the cost of the policing that is necessary in order for law and order to be maintained. The question that needs to be asked and then answered is whose responsibility is bad, ill-mannered behaviour, and then what can we do about it?

Bad manners are the responsibility of the individuals who have transgressed. Families and schools have a duty to ensure that children know how to behave and give then opportunities where they can use the good manners they have been taught in social situations. These opportunities must be deliberately offered as part of the curriculum with the expectation that the social skills acquired will be used routinely when the students are outside school and at weekends.

Hope for the future
I work in London and like many other urban areas in Britain I know that the streets can be tough and unforgiving places and that the priority for many students is to stay safe and avoid conflict. This often means that in order to avoid confrontation (quite rightly) they may suffer as a result of the appalling behaviour and bad manners of others, who may or may not be fellow students.

My case is that, if the students understand that what is happening to them is unacceptable in a civilised society, although they may have to put up with it in the short term, provided that schools and families work together on the agenda of good manners and respect, there is hope for the future.

I said earlier that there is a sense of hopelessness sometimes which is triggered by frustration and it is often said that young people do not know how to behave. Sadly, I believe that often this is true. The good news is that if they can be taught how to operate socially, then hopefully, individuals will make the choice to do so. Crucial to this is their parents looking at themselves and considering the way that they and their children operate in society.

Undoubtedly life has become more competitive and stressful for everyone in the last 20 years, but as human beings we operate as members of a wider society and it is imperative that there are agreed ways of behaving.

I am well aware that this is easier said than done. I have met many parents who see teachers as a middle-class threat to their style of parenting and who sometimes seem to share only a few common values with those that work with their children in school. This is not, however, a reason for writing them or their children off, rather it gives context and challenge to an already difficult situation. We are all challenged on a daily basis in education and of course there is no alternative to trying to improve the situation for such students and their families if they are to become productive members of society.

Almost 30 years ago, when I was head of Year 7 in a comprehensive school in inner London, a boy arrived who was unable to use a knife and fork when eating in the school canteen. This caused him to be the source of ridicule by the other boys in his year group. His form tutor tactfully asked him how he ate his food at home and was told that he dined exclusively on sandwiches, which explained why he had never used cutlery. His mother had seen an advertisement for sliced bread and how nutritious it was and had decided that this would be the ideal diet for her son.

After a few private sessions, the young man’s form tutor had taught him how to use cutlery and the ridicule stopped. This is a small example, but it illustrates the point that ignorance on the part of some students can be due to deficit parenting and that schools can help remedy this.

Wider strategies

In a report last autumn entitled “Improving behaviour”, Ofsted noted that schools which had made the most progress in tackling poor behaviour did so as part of a wider school improvement strategy. They:

  • set out to motivate students and raise achievement by improving teaching, making learning more enjoyable and giving wider choices in the curriculum.
  • ensured that their policy for managing behaviour made sense to all
  • monitored incidents of unacceptable behaviour carefully
  • established additional support strategies for those behaviours the staff found most challenging.