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New report shows the continued decline of pupil's behaviour in primary and secondary schools

By David Porter

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Continued decline in the behaviour of pupils at primary and secondary level in Scotland, along with increases in verbal and physical abuse of staff has been highlighted in a new report published this week.

The Scottish Government commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research to conduct a fifth wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research (BISSR) which was first undertaken in 2006.

Due to the pandemic the 2020 wave of BISSR was postponed, with the result that there was a seven year gap between the fourth wave of BISSR, conducted in 2016, and this iteration of the study.

The research in 2023 explored the headteachers’, teachers’ and support staff members’ views of relationships and behaviour in publicly-funded mainstream schools, as well as the views of key local authority representatives across Scotland.

The report states: Both primary and secondary school staff reported generally good behaviour among most or all pupils in the classroom (65 per cent ) and around the school (85per cent ).

The most commonly reported positive behaviours within the classroom were pupils following instructions and pupils seeking support from staff or peers when needed.

However, low level disruptive behaviour, disengagement and particular serious disruptive behaviours were also frequently experienced by staff.

One of the most common low level disruptive behaviour was pupils talking out of turn, with 86 per cent of staff having encountered this at least once a day in the last week.

One of the most common disengagement behaviours was pupils withdrawing from interaction with staff/others, with 43 per cent having encountered this on a daily basis.

School staff reported that the most common forms of serious disruptive behaviours between pupils were physical and verbal abuse, particularly physical aggression, general verbal abuse and physical violence. Two-thirds (67 per cent ) had encountered general verbal abuse, 59 per cent physical aggression and 43 per cent physical violence between pupils in the classroom in the last week.

The proportion of staff witnessing abuse between pupils related to protected characteristics was lower, but some types of this abuse were reported by around 1 in 5 staff in the last week.

For example, 24 per cent of staff experienced abuse towards pupils who had additional support needs in the last week.

Support staff were more likely than headteachers or teachers to encounter almost all types of serious disruptive behaviours between pupils.

In addition, a higher proportion of support staff reported having experienced the greatest number (21 or more) instances of physical aggression and violence towards them in the last 12 months compared with other staff.

There was a general trend of positive behaviours decreasing and negative behaviours increasing as pupils’ ages increase, with most of the low level and negative behaviours more commonly reported in secondary schools than primary schools.

The exception was physical aggression and violence, both directed at other pupils and towards staff, which were more often experienced in primary schools compared with secondary schools.

Primary 1 -3 teachers were also more likely to encounter these behaviours towards themselves or other staff in the classroom compared with P4-7 teachers and in P4-7 compared with in secondary school.

The abusive use of mobile phones and digital technologies was one of the most frequently experienced serious disruptive behaviours among secondary staff, as were general verbal abuse between pupils and towards staff, physical aggression/violence between pupils and pupils being under the influence of drugs/alcohol.

Primary 4-7 teachers reported higher frequencies of all low-level disruptive behaviours in the classroom than P1-3 teachers.

In terms of disengagement, pupils deliberately socially excluding others was more commonly experienced by primary staff but pupils leaving the classroom without permission or truanting were significantly more likely to be reported in secondary school.

Whilst the majority of staff in 2023 still perceived that all or most pupils are generally well-behaved around the school and in the classroom, perceptions of this among teachers and support staff have declined since 2016 and since the time series began in 2006.

Primary and secondary staff reporting decreases in most positive behaviours and increases in most of the low level disruptive, serious disruptive and other negative behaviours around the school.

The report in full goes into the issues raised post Covid-19 and the effects this has had on all ages of pupils but in particular those of an age of transition from nursery to primary and those moving from primary to secondary who were considered to be less mature than in pre-Covid years.

One of the stand-out notes was that staff at all levels thought there was a perceived lack of consequences for pupils engaging in more disruptive behaviours in particular the management of the behaviour of a small core group of young people with whom all other approaches and strategies had been exhausted and was thought to necessitate more robust measures.

The report also points out the call for greater support for both staff and pupils and points markedly at a reduction in funding such as pupil equity support which has seen the loss of support staff across the country.

It also points to a lack of national frameworks for expected behaviour in schools and issues surrounding class size at primary level.

Responding to the report the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) an alliance of organisations that support children and young people who have additional support needs said: “This report noting a perceived decline in pupil behaviour, especially since 2016, should come as no surprise.

“Many disruptive incidents are linked to pupils with additional support needs (ASN), with numbers more than doubling since 2012, and now amounting to more than a third of children, who are also experiencing an increasing complexity of need. These numbers have been exacerbated by the traumatic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost- of-living crisis, with us also facing a mental health emergency.

“However, this is set against a background of acute under-resourcing to support their needs, with the number of specialist ASN teachers falling by 546 between 2012 and 2022 as just one example.

“Additional funding is desperately needed to increase the support available to those with ASN, including specialist teachers, teaching assistants, mental health professionals and educational psychologists.

“While we support the principle of mainstreaming, that all children be taught in mainstream classes unless exceptional circumstances apply, this has never been properly resourced. Those with ASN are therefore frequently being inadequately supported, which is also impacting on other pupils.2

“Violence against any member of school staff or another pupil is never acceptable, and it is critical that with the Scottish Budget being published next month, our schools are given the necessary resources to ensure that they are safe places in which to work and to learn.”

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