Behaviour in Scottish schools: 2016 research

This report is from the fourth (2016) wave of behaviour in Scottish schools research, first undertaken in 2006.

1 Executive summary

Background and aims

1.1 The Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake a fourth wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research which was first undertaken in 2006. The research explored staff, pupils' and parents' experiences of relationships and behaviour in publicly-funded mainstream schools.

1.2 The overall aim was to inform the development of policy, guidance and support by providing a clear and robust picture of current relationships and behaviour, and of policy and practice in this area.


1.3 The research involved a quantitative survey (of headteachers, teachers and support staff) and a programme of qualitative research (with headteachers, teachers, support staff, pupils and parents).

Quantitative survey

1.4 For the first time, the survey was conducted online rather than on paper (although, unless the headteacher was confident that all support staff would have confidential access to a computer during their normal working day, support staff were also given the option of completing the survey on paper).

1.5 All 362 secondary schools and a randomly selected sample of 508 primary schools were invited to participate. At each school, the headteacher and a randomly selected sample of teachers and support staff were invited to participate.

1.6 Fieldwork was conducted between 9 February and 18 March 2016. In total, 4157 members of staff participated and the overall response rate was 48%.

Qualitative research

1.7 Between November 2016 and February 2017, a programme of qualitative research was conducted to explore and build on elements of the quantitative survey findings.This took place at 11 primary schools and 12 secondary schools (purposively selected to provide a range in terms of size, area deprivation and geographical spread across Scotland) and involved in-depth interviews with 11 headteachers and five depute headteachers, 15 focus groups with teachers, 14 focus groups with support staff, 12 focus groups with pupils and 12 focus groups with parents.

Main findings

Overall perceptions

1.8 Overall, the majority of staff report that they encounter positive behaviour from pupils all or most of the time. Headteachers were particularly likely to report this.

1.9 As in previous waves of the survey, the results from headteachers tend to be more positive than the results from teachers ( e.g. headteachers report they experience more good behaviour and less low-level disruptive behaviour), and the results from teachers are more positive than the results from support staff.

1.10 When support staff and teachers were asked about the behaviours that had the greatest negative impact on their experience during the last week, they identified the most common low-level disruptive behaviours [1] (rather than more serious disruptive behaviours, which are much rarer) as having the greatest impact.

Changes over time

1.11 The biggest change relates to low-level disruptive behaviour in the primary classroom ( e.g. hindering other pupils, work avoidance and making unnecessary noise). Reports of this have increased between 2012 and 2016.

1.12 Primary staff were asked what they thought the reaons for this increase might be. They suggested reasons relating to societal changes (including the increased use of digital technologies), their perception of some approaches to parenting, and a reduction in the availability of ASN resources (support staff, on- and off-site provision, and expert advice).

1.13 Overall, there has been little change in low-level disruptive behaviour in secondary schools.

1.14 Overall, looking at the whole range of behaviours in this category, there has been little change in serious disruptive behaviour in either primary or secondary schools. However, primary support staff report that they have experienced slightly higher levels of general verbal abuse, physical aggression and physical violence towards them personally.

Factors which predict experiences of negative behaviours

1.15 Analyis of a range of school and teacher variables showed that by far the strongest predictor of experiences of negative behaviours, for teachers and support staff in both sectors, was perceptions of school ethos: those who gave a poorer rating when asked to rate 'the overall ethos of your school' reported that they experienced negative behaviours more often. This demonstrates the strong link between ethos and behaviour.

1.16 Among secondary teachers, after perceptions of ethos, the next best predictors were working in a school with a higher proportion of pupils from the most deprived areas and being a less experienced teacher.

Pupil engagement in learning

1.17 The qualitative research with staff and pupils suggests a strong interaction between engagement in learning and behaviour in the classroom.Rather than specific teaching methods being more or less effective, what matters most is how they are delivered and how well they engage pupils.

1.18 Staff and pupils agreed that teachers taking an interest in, and getting to know pupils as individuals, was key to developing relationships and managing behaviour.

1.19 The following aspects of teachers' manner and demeanour were important to pupils: being happy/smiling, being enthusiastic, using humour, being calm and not shouting.

1.20 Both pupils and staff agreed that using a variety of different teaching methods was one of the most important ways to engage pupils.

Approaches used in schools to support relationships and behaviour

1.21 As in 2012, whole-school strategies and supportive approaches, rather than the exclusion of pupils or other punishments, were identified by headteachers and teachers in the survey as the most frequently used approaches to encourage positive relationships and behaviour and manage disruptive behaviour.

1.22 The use of restorative approaches and solution oriented approaches increased between 2012 and 2016. Although changes to the wording of the question mean that the results for 'nurture approaches' cannot accurately be compared over time, the qualitative research suggested that the use of nurture approaches may also have increased. The use of detention and punishment exercises decreased.

1.23 Regardless of the specific approaches or interventions used, staff and pupils agreed it was important to: be clear about expectations; regularly reinforce these expectations; be clear about the consequences if expectations are not met; follow through on the consequences.

1.24 There was a consensus among staff that approaches need to be adapted on the basis of what works for individual pupils.

1.25 Among all groups of staff, there was a widely held view that a lack of both internal and external resources was having a negative effect on the management of behaviour.

School ethos and support for staff

1.26 Staff ratings of school ethos were positive and were broadly the same as in 2012. Staff, pupils and parents felt that a positive ethos was characterised by: a school feeling like a community; shared values (including, above all, respect,); strong leadership from the SMT (Senior Management Team); communication and openness among staff; and 'everyone's voice' – particularly the pupil voice – being heard.

1.27 Most teachers were confident of their abilities to promote positive relationships and behaviour and respond to indiscipline in their classrooms.

1.28 Most teachers and support staff were confident that senior members of staff would help them if they experienced difficulties with behaviour management.

1.29 The experiences of support staff were mixed in relation to their role and the support they receive. Primary support staff tended to be more positive than secondary support staff.

Conclusions and implications

1.30 The 2016 wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research shows that positive behaviour and relationships continue to be the norm in Scottish schools:

  • most staff report that they encounter positive behaviour from pupils all or most of the time
  • most staff give a high rating to the overall ethos of their school
  • most teachers are confident in their ability to promote positive behaviour in their classrooms and to respond to indiscipline
  • where there are problems, these are more likely to relate low-level disruptive behaviour than serious disruptive behaviour. Serious violent incidents are rare.

1.31 Nonetheless, there are challenges. While the most common problems might be classed as 'low-level' ( e.g. talking out of turn, hindering other pupils and work avoidance), this kind of disruption impacts on the learning of all pupils. Moreover, low-level disruptive behaviour in primary schools increased between 2012 and 2016.

The role of parents

1.32 A number of staff in the qualitative research identified that parents have a key role to play in supporting the development of their children's relationships and behaviour and mitigating against the potential negative impacts of societal change.

The role of support staff

1.33 Headteachers, teachers, support staff and pupils commented on the link between positive behaviour and having sufficient numbers of support staff in class. Staff felt that a reduction in numbers of support staff, alongside an increased number of pupils with ASN (as a result of inclusion policies), had resulted in a lack of one-to-one support for pupils who need it and a wider negative impact on behaviour.

1.34 The research with support staff also indicated a need to allow them more time for discussions with class teachers about individual pupils and classroom planning, and time for involvement in whole-school discussions about approaches to behaviour and relationships. There is also scope for improvement in relation to: ensuring support staff feel valued, communication and training.

Resource issues

1.35 Headteachers and teachers talked about the problems of reduced external support for pupils with additional support needs. They identified a need for additional support staff as well as more specialist input and advice.

1.36 They also indicated that, more generally, resources within schools have been stretched – and this has had a knock-on impact on aspects which help promote positive relationships and behaviour such as SMT visibility around the school; time for class planning; and time for peer observations and sharing experiences with colleagues.

The links between behaviour and ethos, relationships and engagement

1.37 Both the quantitative and qualitative research confirms that behaviour in schools cannot be seen in isolation and it is inherently bound up with the ethos of a school, with relationships in the classroom and around school, and with engagement in learning. This reinforces the emphasis placed on these aspects in recent years by a range of policies and guidance [2] .

Engagement in learning

1.38 In the qualitative research, both pupils and teachers identified the pupil-teacher relationship as the most important element of engagement. This includes teachers taking an interest in pupils and getting to know them as individuals.


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