Rebuttal: DfEs Behaviour in Schools Webinar

November 14, 2023

Sanctions and Exclusions Cannot Build A School Culture of Values, Trust and Positive Behaviours 

The anticipated webinar held on 13th November 2023 led by Tom Bennett, Lead Behaviour Advisor OBE , on “Behaviour in Schools” left many questioning why the “new guidance” failed to offer any new evidence-based practices or real solutions to curb the growing number of internal, external and permanent exclusions. UCL published a study in July of this year which demonstrates that one third of children with a history of social care would face exclusion in secondary school (Jay et al., 2023).  The contents of the webinar failed to recognise that “poor behaviours” are a reflection of the silenced voices reacting to ineffective policies, practices and sanctions that do not address the root cause of their distress in schools. This is particularly concerning given the widespread evidence of the harm that this can cause to young people.

Key Failures of The DfE Approach as outlined in the Webinar:

  1. Behaviour management was addressed in terms of the necessity for schools to have consistent policies, practices, values that are taught and modelled by adults, and when broken, result in sanctions. These are basic tenets of all schools. However, they alone have not been successful in curbing the rise in sanctions and exclusions.  Sanctions reflect the failure of schools to cultivate trust and cooperation between students and teachers. Exclusions merely confirm this. Trauma- informed and restorative approaches are evidence-based practices that are changing the lives of children and young people by teachers who learn how to build trust, cooperation and authentic relationships of care with their students. Yet, despite the evidence, not one restorative practice was recommended in the webinar. In fact, all questions regarding the value and implementation of trauma-informed and restorative practices in schools were ignored. (Cherry, 2021, Finnis, 2021; Delahooke, 2019).
  2. Behaviour management was addressed in terms of “teaching” positive behaviours and values that are also modelled by teachers. Students do not behave poorly because they did not memorise value #9 in section 3.2 of their school’s behaviour policy; they behave poorly because of their emotional reaction to not being heard, understood, and supported in the challenges that overwhelm them. Behaviour, therefore, is not managed because it is taught; behaviour is managed because teachers have the tools to de-escalate tensions in the classroom because they understand how to address their students’ needs (Evertson & Emmer, 2009).
  3. Despite the DfE recommendation for establishing positive relationships with students, this was to be achieved through sanctions? The concept of Teacher as the ‘Enforcer’ was especially troublesome. Relationships are not enforced, they are co-created and nurtured by mutual respect and understanding. The idea that a school cannot function without sanctions was equally problematic. There are plenty that thrive without sanctions, as their primary focus is on discipline and not on punishment . Discipline teaches the very values and expectations that Bennett suggested were necessary to build the culture of a school (Erickson, 2023; Brooks, 2020). Punishment, however, shames and excludes. Some of the best SEMH provisions have been incredibly successful because positive relationships were more powerful than sanctions in transforming student behaviours.
  4. The suggestion that ‘poor behaviour’ is a choice response rather than a natural expression of emotional human reaction, means ignoring every developmental and biopsychosocial strand of evidence that suggests the opposite. Neuroscience has contributed greatly to this understanding and can no longer be ignored. Rather than solely looking to failing behavioural policies of the early 20th century to manage behaviour, it is imperative to update “guidance” with 21st century knowledge to address today’s more complex problems in the classroom. The research is clear–every child excluded faces greater risk of becoming a statistic for far more irreversible personal and social problems. Education is the key and adults are responsible for improving it.  In addition, the lack of clarity on what ‘poor behaviour’ is adds ambiguity that can be taken and used inconsiderately.
  5. It was disappointing to see that the DfE policies for behaviour that Bennett highlighted were basically more of what doesn’t work– power and enforce driven policies - searching and screening guidance /suspension and exclusion guidance - with little guidance on “how” to build positive relationships, which is the root of essential change in classroom outcomes (Desautels, 2020)
  6. Another misconception is that a “no exclusion policy” jeopardises safeguarding practices. All safeguarding begins with psychological safety which is destroyed with sanctions that don't address the root cause of behaviour.  Supporting exclusion policies with no discussion of the lack of.provisions for children who are excluded - lack of SEND school places, lack of SEMH or PRU spaces, clearly indicated the lack of foresight and provision for where excluded children go? Nor was there a discussion of the trauma impact and links to crime, substance misuse, homelessness for those excluded. A nicely wrapped package of guidance on “just do better” leaves educators no more informed and knowledgeable on effective practices than previous years of failing because they do not know “how” to curb exclusions (The Guardian, 2023; Reay, 2022)
  7. Acknowledged ‘reasonable adjustments’ for SEND, however this in itself is an ableist suggestion towards SEND and behavior. Focusing on consistency and boundaries  is absolutely the way to help all of us feel safe and enable us to learn and interact, but that consistency has to be enveloped in a relationship of understanding and care. Being an ‘ enforcer ‘ can be contrary to this. Children need to be ‘held’ by adults that can adjust expectations within those boundaries to allow opportunities to learn emotionally so that they can learn academically in a social environment with others that don’t threaten their psychological safety daily, and this may take years. Instead of sanctions, think of  opportunities to learn and reflect and name them appropriately. Where is the space, or acknowledgement, in this guidance for all those children that take their whole school career or longer to learn from the models provided because they did not have them at home or earlier in life. These children may not be classed as SEND, surely their behaviour tells us that there is a need and so adjustments should be made whether they are classed as SEND or not. Without looking at who is being suspended or excluded, we cannot begin to understand why.  *DfE data shows suspension/exclusion rates (for the academic year 21-22) are higher among pupils eligible for free school meal (FSM) (The suspension rate is higher at 16.02 for pupils eligible for FSM, compared to 4.26 for those not eligible, with permanent exclusion rate for pupils eligible for FSM is 0.20, around five times higher than for those not eligible, at 0.04). Whilst rates for the suspension/exclusion of boys (21-22) far exceeds that for girls (Boys have almost double the rate of suspensions, 8.96 compared to 4.78. and nearly three times the number of permanent exclusions, 0.11 compared to 0.04 for girls) and the data for suspensions/exclusions for pupils with SEND is far higher than for pupils with no SEND (The suspension rate for pupils with an education, health and care (EHC) plan is 17.63, and for pupils with SEN with no EHC plan (SEN support) is 18.59, compared to 4.69 for those without SEN). Finally, suspension/exclusion rates for children of ethnicity other than white is higher than for white pupils, with Gypsy/Roma pupils continue to have the highest rates of suspensions (25.63) and permanent exclusions (0.31).

Analytical Summary

If all schools consistently followed Mr Bennett’s advice and continued to view behaviour as a choice, ignoring the established neuroscience of child development, the effect of trauma on the brain and communication and simply establish routines and high expectations of all, we wouldn’t see these huge differences in suspension/exclusion rates across different groups. This DfE approach has been advising school leaders for a number of years, if this approach worked, wouldn’t we see this reflected in suspension/exclusion data? Yet the picture is worsening.

We cannot continue to teach a curriculum which doesn’t reflect the heritage and experiences of our pupils, under resource schools with higher numbers of FSM and SEND pupils and ignore the experiences and needs of children from ethnic minority heritages, boys and of children who have experienced trauma or adversity and simply tells schools they need to focus on routine and structure and children will begin to choose to behave better. This is reductive and unhelpful to schools trying to create warm and safe environments every day, but facing huge challenges in meeting the needs of pupils who cannot simply choose to behave, however much they may want to. Schools rarely want to exclude a child and usually try every option within their power before this happens, but without resources and support to meet the increasingly complex needs of some children in the mainstream arena and increased capacity beyond the mainstream sector, schools will continue to reluctantly exclude and no amount of routines and high expectations will alter this.

Conclusion; What Works

In conclusion, such approaches as this will widen further the inequalities faced by our most vulnerable young people which will lead to greater risk of social exclusion in their adult life, alongside higher rates of crime and mental health needs putting further strain on public services. Positive, safe school cultures are formed through teachers that seek to understand what is behind a behaviour and respond accordingly. Schools can not run effectively based on fear tactics. We must be able to see the child in front of us and take proactive steps to preserve our relationship with them through enabling them to express themselves and belong in the school community.  


Brooks, R. (2020) The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom: A Practical Guide to Supporting Children Who Have Encountered Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Cherry, L. (2021). Conversions That Make A Difference for Children and Young people; Relationships Focused Practice from the Frontline. Oxford: Routledge.

Delahooke, M. (2019) Beyond Behaviours: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioural Challenges. London: John Murray Press.

Desautels, L.L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline, Oregon: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Erickson, J. D. (2023). Punishment in Early Childhood. Pedagogies of Punishment: The Ethics of Discipline in Education, 106.

Evertson,C. And Emmer, E. (2009),  ‘Classroom Management for Elementary Teachers (with MyLab Education)’, 8th Edition, Pearson.

Finnis, M. (2021). ‘Restorative Practise.’  Independent Thinking.

Jay, M. A., Mc Grath-Lone, L., De Stavola, B., & Gilbert, R. (2023). Risk of school exclusion among adolescents receiving social care or special educational needs services: A whole-population administrative data cohort study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 144, 106325.

Jayanetti, C. (2023). England’s special educational needs crisis ‘out of control’ amid record complaints. Acessed November 2023 from: 

Reay, D. (2022), ‘Measuring and understanding contemporary English educational inequalities.’ Accessed November 2023, from:

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