Reputations can be made – and lost – on Twitter, and few know that better than Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour tsar in England. “Tory Tom”, as one head called him, has been accused of promoting “barbaric” zero tolerance regimes and sending children out of the classroom rather than trying to support them.
Not true, he says, with a pronounced sigh. “You can’t punish a child to be good.” But things got nasty at times – “don’t let this man near your children” for example – and he felt it necessary to block his most vitriolic detractors from his Twitter account, leading to accusations he was afraid of criticism.
This former teacher of philosophy and religious education believes he is woefully misunderstood. What schools mean by the zero tolerance slogan is that they have a very low tolerance for misbehaviour or disobeying rules. For example, they will accept almost no excuse for failing to hand in homework, or for swearing (unless, of course, the child suffers from Tourette syndrome), and always react consistently. And that is fine by him.
The system of rewards and sanctions he supports – such as detention and removal from the classroom – is only part of his wider approach, he says, which includes teaching children how to behave and pastoral support for their needs.
He objects strongly to being called “Tory Tom”, saying he is not committed to any one party. Yes, he was appointed by former Tory education secretary Nicky Morgan after Michael Gove, her controversial predecessor, praised his views on discipline, and yes, he supported some of Gove’s policies – such as tackling exam grade inflation and shaking up the curriculum. That doesn’t mean he was in favour of them all, he says.
“I’ve known Twitter for a long time and I love it and I really enjoy using it, but it can become quite brutal. People can be unwittingly – or shall we say wittingly – quite nasty and for your mental health, and your sanity sometimes, you just have to block people who are calling you names and being rude,” he says.
“When you achieve a certain level of name recognition online, whenever you take a stand on anything there will be somebody that comes up against you. In education you’re controversial if you have an opinion. There is no consensus in education. You say, ‘I really like cheese’, and someone will say ‘Your silence on jam is telling’.”
Student teachers are not taught much about keeping discipline, and the complex field of behaviour management is often reduced, misleadingly, to a battle between those who are strict disciplinarians and those who care, he thinks.
“I often find people in education who have a very strange attitude to behaviour. They think that all the children need is someone to care for them and they will flourish. Now, I am very pro caring for children, but there are pupils who come from disadvantaged, difficult circumstances whose habits and routines are not really where they need to be for them to do well at school or anything else.
“The job at that point is to help these children develop really healthy habits about how to interact with others, patience, politeness, self-regulation and compassion for others and so on. It is not enough just to say we care about the children; we have to help them,” he says.
For example, Michaela school in north-west London, where children are not allowed to slouch in class or speak in the corridor, has very strict rules but is “brimming with compassion”, he says.
Good behaviour has to be modelled and taught by the teacher, he says, and sanctions such as detention can have a deterrent effect. Having and consistently enforcing school rules helps to keep good order. His favourite quote is borrowed from a journalist in Scotland who wrote that it was far better to have a fence at the top of a cliff than an ambulance below.
Bennett, 48, lives in east London with his wife and their two young children. He earns a living through training schools in behaviour management and though he has “not received a penny” for his advisory role, he has this year been given a paid 30-day-a-year consultancy with the Department for Education to set up and oversee its £10m behaviour hub network. Lead schools with a proven record of good student behaviour have been identified, and it is planned that partner schools wanting help with behaviour will be able to join up this autumn.
Bennett’s father was a taxi driver, his mother a nurse, and he and his brother were brought up in a loving home in Glasgow and attended “a good, solid comp”. At 16 he went to Strathclyde University to study electrical engineering, but that lasted just three weeks. He returned to school and then studied philosophy at the University of Glasgow.
“Then I drifted into working in night clubs and bars and moved down to London to run clubs in Soho for six years. It was fun but it’s very much a young man’s game and when I was approaching 30 I heard an advert on television saying ‘Use your head, teach’.” So he did.
He studied for his PGCE at the Institute of Education in London, where he recalls just one 45-minute lecture on behaviour management during his year-long training. “Teacher training is still massively dominated by ideology and not focused enough on helping people to succeed in the classroom. The idea seems to be that you will pick it up as you go along. You don’t train airline pilots like that,” he says. In an attempt to inform classroom practice with research evidence he founded Research Ed, which holds information-sharing events.
So was teaching the right decision? “Yes, of course. Teaching saved me,” he says earnestly. “Teaching is when I discovered meaning in my life. It’s a transformative career because the entirety of your time is spent thinking about the needs and learning of others, instead of being caught up in your own selfish needs and ambitions.”
In his new book, Running the Room, the Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour, he describes how at first he struggled to maintain order. He worked it out, though, and through nearly 500 visits to different schools around the UK and abroad, he has pieced together a working model that can be adapted for different classes and schools. Children must be taught how to behave so “teach, don’t tell behaviour”, he says. Script what you will say in advance if things start to go wrong, follow the school’s disciplinary policy and be consistent.
Does he agree with giving a child detention for not having a planner signed or rolling their eyes at a teacher?
“If you set children certain behaviour expectations such as wearing a uniform in a certain way or walking on one side of the corridor and they don’t do it – if it is accidental you might just want to remind them about it. If there is a reason why they can’t do it, financial means and so on, then the school should do what it can to compensate for that. If a child does not have a tie because mum cannot afford a tie then the school should have something in place for that.
“But if a child knows what they should do and there is no major obstacle in the way of them doing it, then they should really just do it because it adds to the smooth running of the school community.”
He has been to schools where children are given five or six warnings for the same misbehaviour. “If you let people off again and again it’s like a snooze alarm and they learn they will always be given another chance, another chance, another chance,” he says. “It’s not the severity that makes the sanction useful, but the certainty of it.”
Personally, he isn’t bothered about how children wear their hair, but if a school extends its uniform rules to personal appearance, then those rules, like any other, should be either enforced or removed. “The only thing for me that would be an absolute no-no would be having a hairstyle policy that discriminated on an ethnic basis. Beyond that, if you have a policy that hair must be tied back or so on then I have no problem with that,” he says.
“I don’t pretend to know how to budget or how to recruit but I do know what classrooms and schools need, not because I am a better teacher than anyone else, but because I’ve had the chance to visit hundreds of schools and find out what works,” he says. “It’s all about building that fence.”
Running the Room will be published by John Catt Educational on 28 August