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 2 – Introduction

On behalf of the Learning Directorate Support and Wellbeing Unit, the Scottish Government Education Analytical Services Division commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) to undertake a fifth wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research (BISSR). Previous waves took place in 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2016. The fifth wave was scheduled to take place in 2020 and then again in 2021 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The research explores staff perceptions and experiences of relationships and behaviour in Scottish schools with the aim of providing evidence to inform the development of relevant policy and practice.

The 2023 wave of the study continued the existing time series to examine changes in pupil relationships and behaviour in the school seven years after the previous wave. It is important to note that the data for this wave were collected following the period in which the COVID-19 pandemic led to severe restrictions impacting the delivery of school education in Scotland and the related experiences of pupils and staff. Furthermore, this wave also took place in the context of a cost-of-living crisis and some of the most significant industrial action over teacher and school staff pay for many decades, with school staff strikes taking place at the beginning of the survey fieldwork period in spring 2023. These issues may all have a bearing on the findings from this study.

Policy context

Supporting the development of and promoting positive relationships and behaviours in schools is a key aim of Scottish education policies. Specifically, this is demonstrated in policy guidance documents such as Better Behaviour – Better Learning (2001), Building Curriculum for Excellence through positive relationships and behaviour (2009), Better Relationships, Better Learning, Better Behaviour (2013) and, most recently, Developing a Positive Whole-school Ethos and Culture – Relationships, Learning and Behaviour (2018).

Other policy developments since the last wave of BISSR include Included, Engaged and Involved Part 1: promoting and managing school attendance (2019) and Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2: A Positive Approach to Preventing and Managing School Exclusions (2017). This guidance was developed to fulfil the Scottish Government’s goals of improving attainment and employability by improving attendance, and to support schools in reducing the number of exclusions by improving school ethos and developing positive relationships and behaviour.

More widely, policies on relationships and behaviour in schools are embedded within and central to the delivery and implementation of policies such as the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) – both of which stress the importance of health and wellbeing for children’s learning. GIRFEC is a specifically Scottish approach which promotes a holistic view of child development and wellbeing[11]. With values and principles based on children’s rights, it is at the heart of Scottish Government’s aim to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up. The principles of GIRFEC have been enshrined in legislation through the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. GIRFEC highlights the importance of ensuring that children’s wellbeing is at the heart of service provision and planning, and it promotes and supports effective partnership working across sectors – including, but not limited to, education, social services, and health. It does so through the provision of a shared language and a structured framework which identifies key aspects of children’s wellbeing – namely the need for all children to be safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included (the ‘SHANARRI’ indicators).

CfE sets out the aim for Scottish education policy to support all children and young people to be successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens[12],[13]. A key feature of CfE is the emphasis on health and wellbeing as crucial preconditions for effective learning and the recognition that positive relationships and behaviour within the school environment play a crucial role in this. Related to CfE is the National Improvement Framework which sets out key priorities in the Scottish education system – one of which is the improvement of children and young people’s health and wellbeing[14].

Drawing on the principles of GIRFEC and CfE, Developing a positive whole-school ethos and culture – Relationships, Learning and Behaviour[15] was developed in response to the 2016 Behaviour in Scottish Schools research[16] and builds on earlier documents. The guidance sets out next steps, outcomes and priority actions identified by the Scottish Advisory Group on Relationships and Behaviour in Schools (SAGRABIS).

Specifically, Scottish Government and Education Scotland committed to:

  • establish a national steering group to develop a programme of professional learning for support staff;
  • continue to fund development of a resource to support staff and children and young people to understand the impact of trauma, stress, bereavement and loss (Scottish Government);
  • consider and act on the findings of a recent review of Personal and Social Education[17] (Scottish Government);
  • continue to provide support to develop policies and strategies to implement the guidance (Education Scotland); and
  • continue to provide professional learning in approaches to develop positive relationships and behaviour (Education Scotland).

At the heart of the guidance is a recognition, as set out in CfE, that a positive and supportive learning environment is crucial for ensuring that all children and young people reach their full potential – and a prerequisite for achieving the aspirations of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, which aims to improve the attainment of children and young people in deprived areas and, ultimately, to close the poverty-related attainment gap[18]. More specifically, the guidance highlights the importance of developing a school ethos of mutual respect and trust between pupils and staff and notes the benefits associated with an ‘authoritative’ school ethos (or ‘climate’) where high expectations and structure exist alongside support and warmth (p.3).

Central to the Scottish Government’s commitment to an inclusive approach to education is the presumption of mainstream policy. The Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000 placed a legislative duty on local authorities to provide education for all children and young people in a mainstream school or early learning and childcare setting unless specific exemptions apply. Guidance on the presumption to provide education in a mainstream setting was updated in 2019[19]. In the same year, the Scottish Government commissioned Angela Morgan to Chair an independent review of the implementation of additional support for learning (ASL) legislation[20] to see how ASL works in practice. The review found that implementation has been fragmented and inconsistent, and has been hampered by increases in the number of young people identified as having complex additional support needs while public sector resources have reduced at a time of austerity.

In developing a positive and supportive learning environment, schools in Scotland draw on a range of strategies to improve relationships and behaviours. These include restorative[21] and nurture[22] approaches. In addition to national policies and guidance, local authorities, supported by Education Scotland, may also produce their own guidance documents. For example, drawing on the principles set out in national policies and frameworks, Glasgow City Council and Education Scotland have produced a framework for incorporating nurturing approaches in schools and early learning and childcare establishments[23].

Pupils, teachers and schools faced unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. School closures, remote learning, phased returns, differentiated timetables and the widespread rollout of public health measures in schools caused significant disruption to school education. A range of research has already demonstrated short- and medium-term impacts of this disruption on pupils. Much of this research has focused on the negative impact on pupil learning attainment, with pupils generally observed to be doing worse and disadvantaged pupils more so, thus widening the attainment gap[24]. There is also a range of evidence demonstrating the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the wellbeing and mental health of children and young people in Scotland[25],[26]. The Equity Audit[27] examined a range of measures put in place by schools, local authorities and other partners to mitigate the impacts of school closures in 2020 due to COVID, with a focus on health and wellbeing and intensifying support. This helped to share understanding of the impact that COVID-19 and school building closures had on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and set clear areas of focus for accelerating recovery, including the refresh of the Scottish Attainment Challenge programme.

As such, the COVID-19 pandemic required a policy response. In the Education Recovery Key Actions and Next Steps: The contribution of education to Scotland’s COVID recovery (2021), the Scottish Government outlined additional funding commitments for the recruitment of extra staff to ensure resilience and to provide additional support for learning and teaching. In addition, the document reinforces the key priorities of Scottish education, namely:

  • Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
  • Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children and young people;
  • Improvement in children and young people's health and wellbeing; and
  • Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school-leaver destinations for all young people.

Mental health and wellbeing: whole school approach: framework (2021) recognised the already increasing trend in prevalence of poor mental health and wellbeing among pupils in Scotland and notes the potential further damaging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this issue. Drawing on the restorative and nurture approaches already in place in schools throughout Scotland, the document provides a plan for how schools may work together with parents, carers, families and a range of partners in schools and the wider community to address these issues, many of which are related to pupil behaviour. The rollout of counselling through schools and professional learning on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing[28] will also assist in addressing these challenges.

As demonstrated above, an emphasis on supporting positive relationships and behaviour in schools and developing a positive school climate, is apparent across a range of Scottish education policies and frameworks. This includes key priorities for Scottish Government such as addressing the attainment gap and the impact of COVID-19. A supportive learning environment is central to ensuring that all children and young people – not least those who, for whatever reason, may not receive high levels of support at home – achieve the very best they can.

The Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research series represents a commitment to produce valid, reliable and robust data that can help put the policies into practice and, where needed, inform further policy development. These data will help provide a national picture of perceptions of positive and negative behaviour in Scottish schools, as well as information about the strategies being used by schools to promote positive behaviour, and their effectiveness.

Aims and objectives

The aim of this study was to provide a robust and clear picture of relationships and behaviour in publicly-funded mainstream schools and of current policy and approaches for supporting relationships and behaviour.

The 2023 wave of the study built on previous waves by providing an analysis of:

  • the nature and extent of positive and negative behaviours in schools, examining trends over time and, in particular, changes that have occurred in the seven years since 2016 in the context of the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • the experiences of staff, examining similarities and differences in primary and secondary schools and between experiences of support staff, teachers and headteachers
  • the factors linked to positive/negative behaviours including the perceived impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on pupil behaviour, school factors (such as size, urban/rural classification); the demographic profile of the pupils (such as levels of deprivation and the proportion of pupils with Additional Support Needs); and the profile of teachers (such as length of service) and, in primary schools, the stage of pupils they are teaching (P1-P7)
  • the impact of pupil behaviour on staff, other pupils and the overall ethos of the school
  • the range of different approaches used in schools to support relationships and behaviour and staff perceptions of which are most effective in different circumstances. This includes: staff perceptions of school ethos and culture with regard to the promotion of positive relationships and behaviour; staff views on the effectiveness of support they receive to encourage positive relationships and manage negative behaviour; the confidence of staff in their ability to manage negative behaviour and the ways in which incidents of serious disruptive behaviour are followed up
  • staff feelings about the level of support they receive from colleagues and more senior staff within the school and within the Local Authority

Report structure

The next chapter provides details of the research methodology and the following chapters discuss the findings in relation to the different themes and topics discussed above. Chapter four provides a comprehensive overview of perceptions of behaviour and chapter five considers how behaviour in 2023 compares to that reported in previous waves of the research. The specific impact of COVID-19 is considered in chapter six. Chapter seven explores which factors are associated with the likelihood of experiencing different types of behaviour whilst chapter eight discusses the perceived impact of behaviour on pupils and staff. Chapters nine and ten summarise findings on the approaches used by schools to manage behaviour and the support drawn on to do so. The report ends with conclusions and implications for policy and practice.

A key strength of the BISSR is its ability to provide robust data allowing the comparison of trends in behaviour over time. To achieve this, it is crucial that the language used in the survey questions is kept consistent across each wave. As the survey has now been running for almost two decades, some of this language may now seem a little out of date and some of the recent emerging trends may not be fully captured in the survey. Potential amendments for future waves are considered in the limitations of methodology and discussion of this report.



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