Behaviour guidance with a sharp, no-nonsense edge

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: iStock

Behaviour tsar Tom Bennett’s guidance contains some strong messages about behaviour in our schools. It also promotes a hard line. Suzanne O’Connell considers its main messages and how they apply to primary schools

According to Tom Bennett’s behaviour guidance Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour, things are none too good in our schools. He suggests that the Steer report and Ofsted have been generous in their findings and may have underestimated the difficulties that schools are facing in managing the behaviour of their students.

A primary headteacher might feel that the report is targeted more at secondary schools. Although it does not specify that secondary schools are the main focus, most of the case studies are from this phase of education and much of the content seems orientated to them. However, the guidance is worth considering for those in a primary leadership role as part of a review of behaviour policy and practice.

The main messages are nothing new and you would expect all primary leaders and their staff to understand that clarity, consistency and high expectations are key components of any behaviour policy. Staff must support one another in their decisions and Mr Bennett advocates that school leaders should back up a member of staff in front of students, only holding them accountable in private if there is a need to correct practice.

He states in his introduction that his objective was to understand the common factors shared by successful schools and these form an important part of the report.

Successful schools

The common features that Mr Bennett identifies are:

  • Committed and highly visible leaders who have ambitious goals and are supported by their leadership teams.
  • Expectations that are effectively communicated, detailed and understood.
  • Highly consistent working practices throughout the school.
  • Strong management teams with a balance of aptitudes.
  • A “this is how we do things around here” understanding of school culture.
  • High levels of staff and parental commitment to the school vision and strategies.
  • High levels of support between leadership and staff, e.g. through staff training.
  • Attention to detail and thoroughness in implementing school policies and strategies.
  • High expectations of all and a belief that all students matter equally.
  • A commitment to staff development.
  • A clearly understood behaviour policy.

Furthermore, behaviour policies should be:

  • Spelled out in detail.
  • Constantly referred to.
  • Made explicit through school life.

Greater attention is given to the role of assemblies, wall displays, time-keeping and uniform. These are seen as key ways in which a school can establish and reinforce the culture it wishes to develop.

Although much of the report will come as no surprise in its content, Mr Bennett does have a discernible tone. He would seem to be from the “no-nonsense” school of behaviour management and his insistence on routines, internal inclusion and consistent sanctions support this.


Mr Bennett is keen that we focus on the detail. By sitting down in our leadership teams and planning carefully exactly how we expect children to behave at key times we are providing the foundation on which all behaviour can rest. So, for example, he advocates establishing routines at lunchtime, in the corridor, at the bus queue, entering and leaving assemblies, entering class and clearing tables. He states: “Leaders should proactively seek to identify what is universally required in every aspect of school life and then strive to make it clear to all stakeholders what the routine involves.”

Internal inclusion

The part of Mr Bennett’s report that received the most media coverage was his reference to the use of internal inclusion units. The idea that all secondary schools might have one of these was lapped up for publication. However, it isn’t clear in the guidance what the main purpose of these might be.

There is the suggestion that they could be used for learning support as well as behaviour management. A relationship that SENCOs will wish to have clarified and quickly. Any form of unit to which children can be removed needs careful management and clear policies. Mr Bennett does suggest that further guidance about these should be issued.

Clear sanctions and measured reward

Examples are given of a structured list of sanctions most of which increasingly isolate the student from others including isolation from lessons, an off-set school day housed away from peers and finally, fixed-term exclusion or permanent exclusion.

Mr Bennett does not shy away from reference to exclusion and challenges reference to them as “necessary evils”. He suggests that if it is necessary it cannot be evil. A comment for a philosophy discussion perhaps.

Although there are mentions of rewards, Mr Bennett is keen that schools do not lapse into “reward fatigue”. He states: “In many circumstances, proportionate sincere recognition of the students’ achievement is the most valuable award available.”

Again, this is perhaps more applicable to older students whose motivation to work through the bronze, silver and gold certificates might have dulled by year 8. However, perhaps there are messages here for primary schools too.
To what extent should we try and build in more intrinsic motivation than handing out certificates and treats to reward good behaviour? Are primary schools guilty of providing too much in the way of external reward?

The most acknowledgment that rewards receive in the guidance is in the section on wall displays. The publication of school awards, lists of head students and names of honoured alumni is more reminiscent of the secondary context. However, backing up word-of-mouth congratulations with paper evidence is valuable in the primary school system too.

Some flaws

Solid, sound advice it might be but there would seem to be some omissions from the primary point of view. There is relatively little reference to parents and working alongside them to support the behaviour of pupils. At primary school level this is vital and it would have been beneficial to have heard more about identifying difficulties early and working with parents to address them.

There are still some unresolved issues in this guidance. The overall tone is of taking a hard line. Procedures are in place and schools must implement them rigorously. However, we are all aware that some pupils will find this more difficult than others and some of these will have SEND.

Mr Bennett is cautious here and recognises that schools need to make reasonable adjustments in order to help support these pupils. However, there is no clear line to follow other than pupils must be helped as much as possible to comply while avoiding indirect disability discrimination. It seems that school must work out the balance between the two themselves.


There is sound advice in the report, some of which is useful for primary schools to consider too. The overall tone very much reflects the current education environment of high expectations, with rigorous and robust implementation.

Mr Bennett’s recommendations include that greater account should be taken of behaviour in school by Ofsted and schools should be funded to create internal inclusion units. He suggests that a range of surveys should be issued targeting members of staff such as trainees, supply, administrative support staff, catering staff and NQTs. The results of the surveys could then be used to produce an anonymised data map with a comparative metric between schools.

Most experienced primary school staff will feel that 10 minutes in most schools provides good evidence of standards of behaviour. The difficulty is that we are increasingly working in a context where outside social difficulties are having an impact on the internal workings of schools. How far leaders can enforce a regime that gives little weight to this is uncertain. For primary schools, working with parents and supporting pupils will continue to be at the forefront of any behaviour policy.

It must be, if their pupils are to have a chance of survival in the secondary schools that are implementing Mr Bennett’s advice. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour, Tom Bennett, Department for Education, March 2017:

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