Behaviour in Scottish schools: research report 2023

This report is the fifth (2023) wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research, first undertaken in 2006.

Chapter 11 – Discussion and conclusions

Overall summary

The consensus of headteachers, class teachers and support staff was that there has been a general deterioration in the behaviour of pupils in primary and secondary schools in Scotland since 2016. Of course, it is important to note that the perceived deterioration in behaviour in the 2023 research is reported in the wider context in which the majority of pupils are still said to behave well and cause teaching staff few difficulties. The majority of staff reported pupils to be generally well behaved around the school (85%) and in the classroom (65%), and it was perceived that overall they tend to follow instruction and that they are often accepting and mindful of their peers.

However, in 2023 all school staff groups reported that there was an increase in nearly every measure, from the low level to more serious disruptive behaviours. Serious disruptive behaviours, such as physical violence and aggression, had an immediate negative impact as a result of their very nature, but low level behaviours, such as pupils talking out of turn, were also thought to have an insidious effect as they were more prevalent, were difficult to deal with and caused frustration and fatigue among staff members trying to deal with them. Indeed, 52% of all staff reported that pupils talking out of turn had the greatest negative impact on overall staff experience within school. Notably, though, there was a reported increase in other serious disruptive behaviours such as verbal abuse, physical aggression and violence, which were also occurring frequently, with verbal abuse being experienced by 67% of staff in the last week in the classroom.

School staff reported a positive view of the overall ethos of their schools, and teaching staff stated that they were mostly confident in their ability to promote positive behaviour in their classrooms and ‘to respond to indiscipline in the classroom’. Serious cases of disruptive behaviour, though perceived to have increased, were still infrequent. Headteachers and local authority representatives also tended to have a more positive view of pupil behaviour and experiences within school as a whole.

In addition, school staff were generally supportive of more nurturing and restorative approaches to managing discipline, with the caveat that time and support were needed to integrate these fully within the school, and that there had to be meaningful consequences within this approach for more serious disruptive behaviour. It was stated that schools that adopted and embraced the nurturing approach across all staff, and not as a top-down approach imposed by the headteacher, were more likely to use it successfully. Also, staff viewed the support they received within school from senior school staff and their peers positively. The majority of school-based respondents reported a positive school ethos and culture which, allied with the fact that most pupils were still perceived to be behaving well within the classroom and the school, suggests that there is still a solid bedrock which can be built on if the more frequent low level disruption and the rarer but more serious cases of dysregulated behaviour are addressed.

Impact of COVID

Respondents of all types thought that the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in an increase in dysregulated behaviour among pupils in primary and secondary schools due to, for example, the perceived negative impacts on mental wellbeing and socialisation as a result of lockdowns. The prevailing view was that it had resulted in an increase in immaturity in pupils of all ages, had created particular problems at times of transition within schools, had led to disengagement, problems with concentration and attendance issues. It was also thought to have had the greatest negative impact on the most vulnerable pupils. There was a perception that parents now expected school staff to be available at all times to discuss issues, and were not as understanding of what schools and teachers were trying to achieve.

Although there was agreement that COVID-19 and associated lockdowns had been responsible for these negative impacts on pupils, their mental wellbeing and their behaviour, it was also argued that these behavioural issues, and indeed the reported deterioration in behaviour in schools, pre-dated the pandemic. As a consequence, it was argued that COVID-19 and its aftermath accentuated a negative trend that was already being experienced within schools. It was also added that governmental policies, and more nurturing and restorative approaches, after 2016 had not been successful in addressing this overall deterioration in behaviour within schools, though it is noteworthy that the number of exclusions has decreased over this time period.

Emerging issues reported in 2023

School staff respondents also reported the emergence of new issues and challenges in 2023 which had not been present or as problematical in 2016, adding to the perceived decline in behaviour. These included:

  • Mobile phone and social media use: pupils tended to think they were entitled to use these devices as and when they wanted, causing distraction and loss of concentration in class. Incidents were described of pupils using the phones in abusive ways, conducting inappropriate filming, etc.
  • Vaping: the rise in prevalence of use of vapes among secondary pupils was outlined as resulting in reduced attendance within classes as young people gathered to vape in toilets throughout the school day.
  • In-school truanting: pupils were said to be avoiding or leaving classes more regularly, and were described as ‘wanderers’ or ‘lappers’ as they walked around the school buildings.
  • A perceived increase in levels of misogyny and gender-based abuse among male pupils, potentially related to use of social media and the impact of influencers.

Specialist support services

School and local authority respondents also stated in the qualitative interviews that there were more pupils requiring specialist support, those with additional support needs and also those with neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD. The underlying presumption of mainstream policy was criticised as it was thought that the support for these pupils was not adequately resourced within schools, there were too few support staff who were also not being adequately remunerated and indeed many of these pupils were viewed as requiring more specialist support than a mainstream school could provide. It was also said that specialist support units had closed, it was difficult to refer to CAMHS and to receive other appropriate specialist support. This was all thought to contribute to the reported increase in violent incidents within schools, as staff did not have the capacity, resources or specialist knowledge to deal with young people with these conditions.

As well as staff supporting dysregulated pupils with additional support needs, it was also thought that overall pupils’ mental health and resilience had declined since 2016. Again, the impact of the pandemic was cited as being a major factor in this decrease in mental wellbeing, with pupils struggling to adapt to lockdown and its aftermath. Respondents argued that this increased the burden on school staff, who had to educate and support a more fragile group of young people less equipped for socialisation and learning.

Impact of disruptive behaviour

The dysregulated behaviour of pupils was thought to have a negative impact on pupils and teaching staff. Violent and aggressive acts impacted on the mental health of other pupils, who were described as displaying fearful and avoidance behaviours in response. In addition, less serious and lower-level distressed behaviour was also perceived as leading to a more widespread tolerance and acceptance, and indeed imitation, of such behaviours among other pupils. This emphasises the importance of addressing these lower-level behaviours at source, as it is possible that more serious behaviours may develop if less serious cases are either ignored or tolerated.

Dealing with behaviour in schools

The consensus among teaching and support staff in particular was that the reliance on nurturing and restorative approaches had the effect that they lacked the means to address the most distressed behaviour of pupils within the school. The most prevalent view was that there was a perceived lack of consequences for the more dysregulated behaviour of pupils, with examples given of teachers and support staff trying to address incidents of pupil behaviour, for example, verbal abuse directed at staff members, but unable to resolve the issue as the pupils were aware of the limited action that might be taken, and also of their own rights and entitlements. There were still schools that did seem to take more severe measures such as excluding pupils from school, but this did not seem to be the norm given the amount of incidents schools reported experiencing. The majority of school staff perceived that there was little action they could take if pupils engaged in more disruptive behaviour and were also unwilling to resolve the issue or stop behaving in this way or of their own accord. It should be noted that school staff respondents argued that they lacked the resources and support to deal with the more dysregulated behaviour.

In addition, staff who had reported instances of behaviour within schools which had been escalated to a more senior level within the school, and to local authority level, expressed disappointment that they had not been any informed of the outcome. The findings suggest that serious disruptive incidents might be under-reported within schools, with primary and secondary staff stating that they were less likely to report an issue to anyone in 2023 than they were in 2016. It was also argued that it would be beneficial if local authority staff contacted the affected member of staff after the incident to ascertain how they were faring and to discuss concerns with them directly.

Considerable frustration was also expressed that schools were expected to deal with the consequences of wider societal issues arguably outwith their control. All participant groups that took part in the research reported that social factors such as deprivation, poverty, the cost of living crisis and indeed the COVID-19 pandemic had fundamental impacts on society, communities, families and pupils, and the presumption was that school staff would be able to accommodate concomitant changes in behaviour among affected pupils. It was also emphasised that many of these underlying societal factors were more evident in 2023 than they had been in 2016, and schools lacked the resources and influence to address these issues successfully.

Suggested changes called for by respondents

Suggested changes to available approaches

School staff identified a need for greater consistency in relation to approaches to behaviour. Staff wanted greater clarity at a national level, in the form of national guidance or policy, as to which behaviours are and are not acceptable and how they might be managed consistently across schools in different areas.

School staff argued that the suite of approaches currently available to them currently lacked sufficient authority and potency. The perceived lack of consequences for pupils engaging in more disruptive behaviours made more restorative approaches ineffective. The management of the behaviour of a small core group of young people with whom all other approaches and strategies had been exhausted was thought to necessitate more robust measures, though apart from suggestions such as removing pupils from the class temporarily, or in more extreme cases the school, teachers were not always able to articulate what might be helpful.

Need for additional resources

The respondents emphasised the importance of providing adequate resources to fund nurture and the presumption of mainstream policy. The reported increase in pupils with ASN (e.g., ADHD, ASD) and young people with undiagnosed conditions suggest that much higher levels of funding and support are required to support the inclusion policy. It should be noted that the inclusive aims of the presumption of mainstream policy were welcomed, but only if appropriately resourced.

Alternatives to mainstream for pupils

Across the local authority representatives and the school interviews, a lack of provision for enhanced support provision was reported. Indeed, the majority of social, emotional and behaviour needs support was provided by schools themselves. It was proposed that additional LA support was required to help manage highly dysregulated pupils. Suggestions included more places to be made available in behaviour units, more opportunities to be provided for support through third sector organisations and alternative curriculum and learning options to be explored. Again, funding would be required for this additional and resource and support.

Suggested modifications: Support and training

More support from national and local government bodies

School staff interviewees expressed a desire for more support to be provided at a national and local governmental level. This often related to more resources, both in terms of staffing and funding, to allow schools to have the capacity to deal with disciplinary and behavioural issues, and to support those with additional support needs. School staff also called for greater understanding and acknowledgement of the extent and impact of dysregulated behaviours within schools. It was proposed that the Scottish Government might issue a statement of support, in line with a zero tolerance of violence statement, for school staff experiencing violence in their workplace.

At a local level, it was also suggested that there should be:

  • More communication from local authority staff about how specific school incidents had been dealt with
  • a more visible presence from LA staff, such as visiting schools and experiencing the school environment.

Greater resources needed at LA level

Staff in schools in more deprived environments described the benefits of additional funding they had received through the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) and the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC), for example, in establishing Inclusion Hubs. However, school staff also highlighted instances where their funding from PEF and SAC had been reduced or come to an end, with implications for the funding of inclusion hubs and support staff levels.

School staff perceived that cuts to statutory services (e.g., social work, CAMHS), alternative learning provision from third sector organisations, enhanced support provision and numbers of support staff impacted on the resources available to schools to help some of their most dysregulated children and young people. It was also thought that long waiting lists for specialist support services needed to be addressed if schools were to support young people adequately.

Need for additional staffing at school level

At a school level, school staff called for funding to increase staff capacity to address distressed behaviour. Staff pointed to reductions in numbers of support staff, a critical resource though thought to be underpaid, and the ways this has impacted on schools’ ability to provide one-to-one support and facilitate nurture and well-being groups. Staff also called for smaller class sizes, particularly in the primary sector, to help staff build relationships with their pupils.

Need for more training/collaboration

Class teachers expressed a desire for more classroom observation from their peers to help them reflect and discuss strategies used, and additional peer support from their colleagues, in order to address poor discipline. They also wanted more time after attending professional learning to be able to reflect on the sessions and consider how the strategies could be applied to their own classroom to improve behaviour.

School staff perceived that support staff faced a number of barriers to attending training, and these needed to be addressed in order to aid their development. It was added that support staff should be paid to do training outside of school or their contracted hours. Support staff themselves requested appropriate induction training in order to support them in their roles with children.

Parental and pupil engagement

It was commonly expressed that parents could be more supportive of teaching staff’s efforts within schools to manage behaviour. It was suggested that greater engagement with parents may help to address this, though it was stressed that schools and teachers were being held accountable for wider social issues. Staff called for earlier intervention to help support struggling families, though the problem of providing this in the context of local authority budget cuts was recognised.

It was also suggested that a campaign to engage with pupils themselves to discuss what their rights and responsibilities are within school, and how to address low and more serious disruptive behaviours, might be beneficial.

Recommendations for the next iteration of the BISSR study

The Scottish Centre for Social Research conducted the BISSR 2023 study. One of the main changes in the conduct of the 2023 study was the much closer integration of the quantitative and qualitative fieldwork, analysis and reporting phases. The benefits of this approach would appear to outweigh any disadvantages, and the recommendation would be for this more integrated approach to continue. Other issues which should be considered when the next wave of BISSR is commissioned include:

  • A recommendation that fieldwork for future survey waves is aligned with previous surveys (2016 and prior) to begin in early February and end in mid-late March so as not to come too close to the pre-exam time and the Easter break. Fieldwork for 2023 started slightly later than in previous waves[93] and closer to pre-exam time and the Easter break. This change to the fieldwork period was largely due to the impact of industrial action by school staff at the time and might have some impact on reported experiences of pupil behaviour.
  • Consider additional survey promotion and contact approaches with schools prior to and during survey fieldwork in order to help ensure that the survey details are being filtered through to the staff that implement the survey.
  • Include demographic questions in the survey to cover school staff members’ protected characteristics.
  • Identify potential changes to survey questions in which the language used is out of date in the current context; reviewing whether such changes could be made to some question whilst retaining comparability on key data across the time series.
  • Consider adding questions to the survey to better capture emerging issues such as vaping (in addition to smoking), in-school truancy and mobile phones/digital technology and the impact these have on pupils’ learning and behaviour.
  • Consider asking the survey questions in relation to pupil behaviour around the school of support staff as well as of headteachers and teachers, given the prevalence of support staff experiences of negative behaviour in the classroom
  • Involving pupils and parents/carers in the research. Clearly there will be budgetary implications, but it would seem advisable to elicit the views of pupils and parents/carers, most likely as part of the qualitative research phase
  • Reduce the number of qualitative interviews with local authority representatives. Although it may be advantageous to seek the perspective of representatives from as many local authorities as possible, arguably data saturation is reached and it may be better to focus the local authority interviews in case study areas only.



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