It is 1996, and nightclub manager Tom Bennett is watching as a mob of German football fans are pursued down London’s Wardour Street by a group of England supporters. “They were trashing windows as they ran and were chased, in turn, by a cavalry charge of mounted police. We pulled down the shutters, locked the doors and kept everyone in.”
Jump to 2015 and club manager Tom is now 43-year-old Mr Bennett, teaching religious studies and philosophy in a secondary school in Dagenham, east London.
While the two worlds couldn’t appear more different, they have this in common: behaviour is of the utmost importance. “It is absolutely essential to the craft of being a teacher,” Bennett says. “Instead of calling it behaviour management you can call it running a room.”
In a club “you have to make sure that people are in place, and it’s the same with the classroom. If you get 25 children in a room together, whatever their age, it’s very unlikely that, unprompted, they would do trigonometry or read Socrates or Pride and Prejudice. Most of them would be on their phones or punching each other.”
Bennett has just been hired by the Department for Education to improve behavioural standards in the nation’s schools. His brief is to put together a “series of recommendations for the way that teachers are trained in behaviour management”.
In practise, he’s the head of a working group and rejects the title ‘behaviour Tsar’ bestowed on him by the press. “That obfuscates what the role is,” he insists. “Tsars have absolute power, dominance and influence. Nobody actually crowned me. And if there’s a uniform, I’d love to see it.”
Raised in Glasgow, Bennett came late to teaching. Having studied for a masters in philosophy and politics at the University of Glasgow, he ducked out of his graduation ceremony to appear on the television show Blind Date, much to the amusement of his teaching colleagues. On Twitter, where he has more than 22,000 followers, he is often reminded of it.
At 30, he enrolled at the Institute of Education to do a PGCE. “I saw the adverts and realised this was what I’d been missing out on for years. It was extraordinary going back to student halls of residence after so long in a full-time job,” he says. His 18-year-old peers made him college fire warden.
His profile has risen quickly in the decade since then. Bennett now writes regularly for the TES and last year received a nomination for the Global Teacher Prize, reaching the final 50 – one of only two UK teachers to do so.
It was his blog, Tom Bennett’s School Report, written at his kitchen table since 2007, that brought Bennett to the attention of the Department for Education. To Bennet’s astonishment, then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, invited him in for a chat and asked him what the Government could do to “fix” behaviour in this country.
At the time, the answer was nothing. “[Gove] seemed a bit surprised, but I said that we didn’t need any more stop and search powers – all the tools we needed to run a calm classroom were there already.”
That was five years ago, and Bennett’s recent appointment suggests that the problem hasn’t improved. “I realise now that this won’t fix itself,” he says. “Teacher training needs to be improved, so that’s what I’m focusing my attention on. That’s how I’ve come to be on this board.”
Happily for Bennett, his pupils think “appropriately little” of his semi-celebrity teacher status. “They like it when I’m on television, but they know it means nothing in the classroom,” he says.
“I was on the news one day, to talk about the [Global Teacher] Prize, and the next day one of my kids said, ‘Sir, you’re the best teacher in the world?’ I replied, with a lot of irony, ‘Yes, I am!’ and he said, ‘God, the others must be really bad.’ That’s perfect, that’s what you need.”
The first step for Bennett is defining his terms. For him, the enemy is misbehaviour, rather than bad behaviour. “It’s more neutral and less confrontational,” he explains. And misbehaviour is “anything that impedes a student’s learning”. He uses the example of a child looking out of the window. “If they’re looking out of the window because they’re watching something else, then yes, it’s misbehaviour, but if they’re looking out of the window because they’re thinking, then it’s not. Everything is in context.”
Teachers must set firm boundaries, he says, something that newcomers to the profession often find difficult. “Many new teachers start off wanting to be really kind and friendly to their pupils. They believe they will win them over with the power of love.” That usually doesn’t happen. “They find that their ambitions are dashed against the cliffs of indifference to their eventual ruin, because children don’t want, or need, a tall friend.”
What children do really need are teachers who are properly trained in behaviour management, Bennett says. “It isn’t just important, it’s fundamental, yet in my training I had just one hour of a lecture in behaviour management all year.”
It isn’t solely the training schemes that are at fault – the reasons for misbehaviour in schools are varied, both internally and externally. One of Bennett’s bugbears is the current trend for group work. “Don’t get me started,” he begins, launching into what sounds like a well-rehearsed attack on “a modern dogma”.
“Group work is like any strategy in the classroom – a tool. A hammer is a tool: would you use a hammer for every job? Absolutely not. Sometimes group work is essential, but it’s got enormous challenges and difficulties.” One of those difficulties is the propagating of misbehaviour.
Parents can also obstruct behaviour management. “The automatic reaction should be, ‘I will support the school’” but that doesn’t always happen. “We might set a detention for a child because they’ve hit someone with a ruler, and then the parent will say, ‘Well, he said he didn’t do that.’” This is unhelpful to both the school and the children. “This kind of gut reaction that ‘I will defend my child’ isn’t helping the child, it’s damaging them.”
Bennett has nicknamed his still-incomplete behaviour team his ‘Avengers’, but only time will tell whether they will complete their mission.
“I can’t guarantee that it’ll be Better with Bennett,” he says, “but I can guarantee that I’ll do my best. That’s all any teacher can ever do in the classroom, and that’s what I’m doing now.”