Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research: Education Secretary statement

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills Jenny Gilruth's statement on the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research 2023 delivered to the Scottish Parliament on 29 November 2023.

Presiding Officer.

The issues associated with behaviour and relationships in our schools are thorny ones for any Government.

But it is imperative that we address those issues – and that we do so honestly.

That is what I will do today.  

Yesterday the Government published the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research, which provides the accurate national picture of behaviour in our schools.

I wish to thank the researchers at ScotCen for their work on this publication; and of course to the teachers and support staff who contributed. The report is a substantive one.

It does not shy from the real challenges in our schools. And I will not seek to sugar-coat the Government’s response to the seriousness of the challenge ahead of us.  

It is essential we get this right.

Members will recall that in May this year, I committed to engagement with: teachers; support staff; local authority staff and parents, carers and children and young people’s representatives, through a range of behaviour summits. 
In June, I convened a headteachers taskforce to hear directly the views and concerns of headteachers from across Scotland on issues surrounding school exclusion.
In September and October I chaired behaviour summits focused on recording and monitoring of incidents, with the last summit, yesterday, focused on the outputs from the BISSR research.  
The Summit sessions and engagement events along with the research evidence will inform the areas that we need to focus on in the joint action plan.

The research shows that both primary and secondary school staff have been reporting generally good behaviour among most pupils. Indeed, the most commonly reported positive behaviours were pupils following instructions and seeking support from staff or peers when needed.

I think it is important we keep that big picture in mind.

I would also ask colleagues across the chamber to bear in mind that these issues are not unique to Scotland. 

Context is important.

The research noticed that the pandemic’s impact on delays to communication skills and dysregulation.

And indeed, as I outlined in a statement to Parliament earlier this month, the number of young children in Scotland experiencing speech and language delays has increased since Covid – with this difference doubles between our poorest and wealthiest communities.

So Covid has not created challenging behaviour; but it has exacerbated the conditions which allow it to flourish.

Similarly, Action for Children reported earlier this month that as the cost of living crisis has deepened, more children are going to school hungry. More of our young people are anxious or stressed – and they bring this with them to school.

It is also worth saying that Scotland is not unique. The Welsh Education Minister, Jeremy Miles, spoke only last week about similar challenges and the Chief Inspector for Schools in England has confirmed an increase in disruptive behaviour post-pandemic.

Internationally, the OECD has confirmed this shift through their own research.

This context is important in terms of the framing.

The research tells us that low level disruptive behaviour, disengagement and some forms of serious disruptive behaviours have increased since 2016.  This includes increases in behaviours such as violence and abuse between pupils and towards staff.  

I am absolutely clear that our schools should be safe and consistent learning environments for all.

No teacher, or support assistant should face violence or abusive behaviour in their place of work.

And while it is clear that it remains low level disruption, rather than violence, that has the greatest impact on staff on a day-to-day basis, the impact of this can be debilitating for teachers.

It also disrupts others from learning.    

The research identifies a number of emerging trends in behaviour from our young people, including in-school truancy, vaping, disruptive use of mobile phones, and misogyny. 

At one of the taskforce events I chaired, a headteacher told of young people who would “lap” the school building. They are present during registration but not during lessons, instead they wander the corridors, or they sit in the toilets.

These young people are not learning.

The research shows that many of our children are struggling.

This is particularly true of those who missed out on transitions from early years to primary, or from primary to secondary.

It is extremely concerning that some of the biggest challenges with violence and aggression are seen in our youngest children, in primary 1 to 3.

These are all Scotland’s children.

But we have to commit to a plan for improvement.

The status quo is not an option.

Presiding Officer, Scotland’s schools are not run by me as Cabinet Secretary – nor would I wish it to be so.

It is imperative, therefore, that local authorities are engaged in the action required to improve behaviour and relationships in Scotland’s schools.

The report mentions lack of support from some local authorities and disparate approaches to behaviour management policies.

To that end, we will develop a national action plan to set out the parameters to improve behaviour and support better relationships in Scotland’s schools. The plan will include a range of practical suggestions and solutions.

It will be established with representatives from education, parents and carers, teaching unions, directors of education and of course with COSLA. We will also ensure it is informed by the experiences of children and young people themselves.

This multi-year plan will set out actions at national, local and at a school level.

We will use the feedback from the behaviour summits, alongside the BISSR research, to inform the areas we need to focus on in the action plan.

To drive this work forward with urgency, I have asked the newly appointed Interim Chief Inspector, Janie McManus, to strengthen the evidence HM Inspectors gather during school inspections, to ensure we have an accurate picture of behaviour in Scotland’s schools to support improvement.

The report discusses challenges with teacher confidence, with some believing that approaches to promoting positive behaviour are having a detrimental impact on overall behaviour.

There is a perception that the focus on positive relationships means there are limited consequences anymore for inappropriate behaviour.

I am clear of the need for Local Authorities to identify their own approaches to supporting staff, who of course they employ.

To that end, I am pleased to announce today Scottish Government will provide support of £900,000 for local councils to use to support training for their staff in responding to the new challenges in our schools, post-Covid.

I am grateful to the EIS and to NASUWT for their recent research on behaviour in our schools. The EIS research points to violent incidents increasing in our schools by over 80% amongst their members. They also mention under-reporting and staff feeling unsupported.

I also want to make mention of the NASUWT’s research, which specifically considered the gendered impact of challenging behaviour – a theme also captured by the BISSR research which indicated that female teachers described misogyny and sexism, with verbal abuse more frequently being directed at them.  

The Gender Equality Taskforce in Education and Learning provides the context for the forthcoming Gender Based Violence in Schools Framework.

And that Framework will provide guidance on tackling this issue proactively and preventatively, and it will launch in the coming weeks.

Presiding Officer, my former colleagues talk of the corrosive impact of social media influencers, poisoning every day teaching with the type of intolerance towards women that we all thought long over. And this has wider implications for a workforce who are predominantly female.

I think we need to be pragmatic about reporting – because without consistent and accurate recording of incidents, there will be limited evidence for schools and councils to use for improvement.

So today, I encourage, in the strongest possible terms, more accurate recording of all incidents of inappropriate, abusive or violent behaviour in our schools.

I recognise that in so doing, initially, the data on incidents will increase. 

However, it remains my view that it is necessary for us to continue to strengthen the evidence base in order to inform improvements at school and local authority level.

Presiding Officer, the fifth iteration of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools research presents a challenge to all of us interested in improving Scotland’s education.

We cannot suggest that the pandemic has not exacerbated inequity and nor must we blame it for these challenges.

Schools, equally, can’t do this alone; they need help.

Scotland’s parents and carers are crucial to supporting improvements we need to see in our schools.

And to that end, I have asked Connect and the National Parent Forum for Scotland to directly contribute to the national action plan – so that, nationally, we can support the development of whole school behaviour management policies – which embed the home to school link.

The BISSR research is a substantive body of work. To that end, I have invited Opposition MSP spokespeople to meet with the researchers and with me directly, to allow them to present the findings in more detail.

I am also conscious of the expectations within the Education portfolio to meet the challenge posed by the report. Many of the levers that I believe we require to pull, sit in other parts of Government.

I have therefore asked for cross-portfolio engagement with Health and Justice colleagues on their responsibilities, to ensure we can better support an approach which recognises the need for joined-up policy making.

Presiding Officer, today I have set out a 5 point plan which attempts to respond to the rallying cry for support which underpins the BISSR research –

  •  A National plan for action, developed in partnership with key stakeholders and informed by Headteachers from Scotland’s schools
  • Support spear-headed by our new Chief Inspector, to ensure HMI inspections are documenting the accurate picture of behaviour in Scotland’s schools to help support improvement.
  • Funding for staff training to allow our local authorities to best support their teams
  •  A call for more accurate and consistent reporting of incidents in our schools
  • A dedicated approach to responding to issues surrounding misogyny

However, I also call to action all of those who have a role in supporting improved relationships and behaviours in schools.

To support this Education Scotland have published a suite of practical materials, developed with teachers on areas such as expectations and consequences.  I encourage their use by all Education Scotland staff as they engage and support our schools.

The summits and the research have shown that at school, local and national level there are things we can and should do better.

I ask all partners to reflect on whether there is action that they could take now to drive local improvements.  

I ask that our councils and schools look to review their policies on relationships and behaviour. 

I look forward to engaging with our Trade Union partners next week to discuss the way forward.

Let me be clear - violence in Scotland’s schools is unacceptable.

It is unacceptable for the staff in our schools and for the young people we entrust in their care.

It is essential that pupils and their families are reassured that our schools are safe, consistent learning environments for our young people, and for those who work there.

And we have much to build upon in Scotland, Presiding Officer.

Our education system is  focussed on achieving excellence and equity for all children and young people. 

We have to enact a national plan which better supports our teachers and support staff in the workplace; recognising the role of Local Government as employer.

And that plan has to better protect the learning outcomes for our young people – the vast majority of whom are well behaved.

That is the prize that better behaviour and relationships in our schools can deliver – and I look forward to working with our partners across Scottish Education to deliver just that.  

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