I went for a coffee with a former colleague a few days ago and inevitably, after some small talk, the conversation turned to a discussion of his school. He started off by confiding that the GCSE results had fallen again, before launching into a tirade about how unbearable he found teaching. One of his biggest bugbears was the school’s behaviour policy. This ‘policy’ has been rebranded under the heading ‘See it, own it’. Essentially, this means that when teachers see students flouting the school rules they must then own the consequences and enforce the appropriate sanction. There are no whole school systems to support teachers in doing this other than a computer system on which teacher are supposed to record what they have seen and how they have owned it.

My baseline assumption is that all decisions made in schools must come from good intentions rather than, say, laziness, but in this case it’s hard to see how this policy is likely to benefit anyone. The logic underpinning the approach (here’s a non-education website all about it)  is that if we do own what we see then we won’t blame others for stuff going wrong. When applied to a school it suggests that if teachers are responsible for upholding standards of behaviour then they will work harder to forge stronger relationships and be less likely to simply palm off problems on overworked members of SLT. But, frankly, this is nonsense. If you teach a full day, where are you expected to get the time to fill in computer records, run detentions, phone parents and discuss with students all the misbehaviour you might have seen during the day? Even the most committed, enthusiastic teacher will be forced to perform some savage calculations in order to determine exactly how they can spend their most precious resource. As part of that calculation, they will have to decide what they will interpret as misbehaviour bad enough to to own, and what will be reclassified as ‘just the bants’ or ‘kids being kids’. It’s self-preservation to choose just to focus on what goes on in your own classroom and ignore the corridors and playing fields. More cynical teachers will very quickly decide that they will just not see all sort of things which they don’t have time to own.

In no time at all, students learn that only the most grievous misbehaviour is likely to be sanctioned and then only when perpetrated against the most experienced and senior members of staff. When more junior teachers, or support staff are expected to own all the disrespect and rudeness flung their way in any given day, students quickly see that there is no support for these individuals, that they sink or swim by their own efforts. Those that do manage to more than tread water are forced to pander to students’ whims and become the kind of groovy teacher who teachers ‘fun’ lessons. Anyone who sees school as about hard work, respect and following the rules is in for a tough time. Every time one member of staff allows a child to flout a rule, the job of every other member of staff is made harder.

No one rises to low expectations. As the bar lowers, standards slip. As students get away with increasingly gross misconduct, more students perform the arithmetic and work out that it just doesn’t pay to do the right thing and that, hey! no one minds that much if you muck about. As long as you hush up when a more senior member of staff wanders in and avoid telling the head to eff off, you should be fine. Teachers either become increasingly stressed, overworked and resentful, or are forced to remould themselves as being down with the kids. Oh, there are always islands of rigour; teachers who have worked in the school for 20 years and taught everyone’s mum, but they become increasingly rare, and often, as other teachers are forced to become more about fun and relationships, seen as embarrassing dinosaurs.

So, if you want to improve a school, don’t ask teachers to “see it, own it”. Get out of your office, be present in every classroom and corridor, insist on the same respect for less-experienced staff that you would expect for yourself and make it as easy as possible for staff to report minor incidents. One school I visited recently has improved behaviour massively in a very short space of time. If students are engaging in anything which might be said to constitute low-level disruption they are given one warning and then sent to internal exclusion where the responsibility for correcting the problem becomes the SLT’s. Once teachers hit the button to send a student to the exclusion room, they have 5 min to get there after which consequences ramp up steeply. The role of SLT has become to strip out every extraneous demand on teachers so that all their efforts can be focussed on planning, teaching and assessing.