Alice Dunn
Head of Curriculum Design at Teach First

‘No excuses’ or restorative justice — what’s best for behaviour management?

No school has perfect pupil behaviour all the time. But what makes some stand out? Is a hardline approach the answer, or is there benefit to being progressive? We reached out to headteachers and pastoral experts for their take on the discipline debate.

Sue Cowley, teacher trainer and author

Children benefit from routine, clarity and consistency of expectations; but achieving conformity through behaviourism does not tend to actually change behaviour in the long-term.

As I say to new teachers, there is no ‘best’ approach to behaviour management. It is better to think of a spectrum, with ‘purely behaviourist’ at one end, and ‘purely restorative’ at the other. The reality is that most schools fall somewhere in the middle, sliding around on the scale to do the best they can for their learners.

The ‘best way’ to manage behaviour will always depend on your context, your phase and your philosophy. So, the important question to start with is actually about your values, and the values you want to promote to your community.

To my mind, ‘no excuses’ is a misnomer. There are always reasons why children behave poorly; trying to work out those reasons is not trying to ‘excuse’ them, it is about trying to understand them. Children benefit from routine, clarity and consistency of expectations; but achieving conformity through behaviourism does not tend to actually change behaviour in the long-term.

'The child is not for the school, the school is for the child.' This saying encapsulates the values of our setting: if you want to be inclusive, you have to be willing to adapt to all comers. When a setting says ‘if you don’t like it, go somewhere else’, that is not inclusive. We simply cannot have it both ways.

You can find Sue on Twitter at @Sue_Cowley, or visit her website


Sam Strickland, Principal at The Dunston School

Why is being strict seen as oppressive? To be strict is to be clear, consistent, constant.

Behaviour should not be left to chance. We should not allow staffroom conversations about behaviour to be dominated by the member of staff who throws ‘they behave for me’ as the bomb that crushes the spirt of others struggling with a particular group.

It is no accident that behaviour features on both the headteacher and teacher standards. Whilst my views on behaviour will sound polemic, I do deeply hold that leaving it to chance is to absolve yourself of your professional responsibility - especially as a school leader. Poor behaviour is kryptonite to a school’s culture, ethos, to teacher morale and wellbeing, to learning, to recruitment and retention, to a school’s reputation, outcomes and children's life chances.

My firm view and stance is that schools should adopt centralised, centrally-led approaches to behaviour. Critics cite that such approaches are either strict, deskill staff or are professionally suffocating. I believe these claims to be false and ill-founded.

If we start with the strict position first: why is being strict seen as oppressive? To be strict is to be clear, consistent, constant. If a behavioural approach is strictly adhered to then it is consistently applied. This is the dream that allows any school to run like clockwork. Otherwise you are left with calamity, chaos and a lack of order. Children of any age need clear boundaries, clear routines and clear rules to know where they stand. Once they know your position and that it will be adhered to, then they know where they stand.

The second claim is that centralised approaches deskill staff, or that staff will swiftly pass the buck regarding detentions. I am yet to see where this is the case. Staff need to be the architects of their own classroom culture. They still need to be skilled in curricular design, subject knowledge, questioning and overall classroom pedagogy. My experiences of centralised approaches to behaviour are that they allow staff to master the basics of classroom management and become more skilled as classroom practitioners. They allow the halcyon dream to become a reality - enabling teachers to teach and allowing the magic (teaching and learning) to happen. Such an approach liberates teachers. 

This refutes the third claim that centralised approaches suffocate staff. I would strongly argue that most teachers do not want to spend their entire working day managing and policing behaviour. Is their role to enact crowd control or to actually teach the curriculum? I know which side of the fence I sit on here.

So, if you value your school culture and you do not want to leave things to chance then take a firm grip of behaviour; treat it as part of your curriculum, teach it and be explicitly clear. In my books Education Exposed and Education Exposed 2 I spend a lot of time referencing behaviour as a key school improvement driver.

You can find Sam on Twitter at @Strickomaster


Marie Gentles OBE, Co-Founder of Magic Behaviour Management

A pupil needs to feel emotionally safe first before they are able to modify their behaviour.

So often I have been asked this question with a view to answer it in one way or the other. However, my approach is a balanced one, as a pupil needs to feel emotionally safe first before they are able to modify their behaviour.

This emotional safety can be realised through the equal application and implementation of expectations, boundaries and consequences, evenly balanced with reward and nurture. If each of these areas are all proportionately implemented, it provides emotional security and consistency for pupils via a contained environment. The basis from which behaviour modification can be supported and managed, but most importantly, sustained overtime.

By securing a pupil’s emotional safety and creating a contained school environment, this meets the needs of both pupils and staff. In order for this to be achieved, my approach is to focus on the perceptions of behaviour from the adults supporting pupils first and how the behaviour of children and young people can affect how we think, feel and respond. This needs to be done before looking at behaviour strategies to support them.

A secure understanding of containment, attachment and behaviour as a language of communication is inclusive within this approach. This is because the areas of containment will then become the strategies within themselves, which go on to support the modification of behaviour over time.

You can find Marie on Twitter at @magicbehaviour, or visit her website


Mark Finnis, Director at L30 Relational Systems

[Restorative practice is] about fostering a greater sense of community and encouraging a willingness to act in the right way for the right reasons.

Restorative practice is not about replacing traditional behaviour management systems. It’s certainly not about being soft or turning a blind eye to poor behaviour. It’s about elevating the culture of a school so people are pulled in, not pushed out; about fostering a greater sense of community and encouraging a willingness to act in the right way for the right reasons. Although its roots are clearly in restorative justice – as a way of repairing the harm done to the community and relationships within it – restorative practice has the bolder ambition of proactively developing the sense of community and seeking to increase the quality of the relationships across the school and, from there, into the wider community.

This practice moves us towards a much more interpersonal process: a culture of shared responsibility and problem solving. The voices and needs of all those involved are clearly outlined and addressed, and – whilst some sort of consequence may well be necessary – the focus is on restoring trust and connection, on putting things right, making things better and moving forward. Put simply, restorative justice is what you do; restorative practice is what you are. So, how do you change the culture of a school? One classroom at a time. Where do you start? In the one you’re in now.

You can find Mark on Twitter at @Markfinnis, or visit his website


Teach First on behaviour management

Teach First believe that behaviour is an important component of school culture and that when behaviour improves in general across a school, it has a positive impact on pupil achievement, as well as staff satisfaction and retention. Ensuring good behaviour is an important priority for all teachers and leaders - and can be a barrier or an opportunity to a lot of other priorities and improvements.

We also know that there are multiple different ways of achieving this. Schools must find an approach to behaviour that works for them, their context and their culture, When working with teachers and school leaders on our programmes we seek to support them in exploring different approaches and to develop their own, matched to their needs and context.

We do, however, hold to a number of key principles. Consistency and routines are at the heart of promoting good behaviour and a positive learning environment. Behaviour needs to be taught deliberately and must be modelled by all in a manner that promotes respectful relationships. However, we must be mindful of the need for adjustments and flexibility where appropriate, for example considering age-related development and children with SEND.

We believe in a whole child approach which recognises that social and emotional development and wellbeing is an integral part of achieving success in school and for the future. Supporting good behaviour and a positive learning environment for all is an important part of that.


Watch: Our Future Terms panel on behaviour management

This panel aired on Thursday 11 November 2021


Jennifer Owen-Adams - Head of Programme Support at Teach First


  • Ann Donaghy - Headteacher at Noel Baker Academy
  • Marie Gentles - Behaviour Advisor and Co-Director of Magic Behaviour Management
  • Gwyn ap Harri - CEO of XP School
  • Matt Taylor – Maths teacher at St Bede’s Comprehensive School and Byron Sixth Form

You can now listen to our Future Terms panels on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. To sign up for the next event, visit our website.

Learn more about how a Teach First NPQ in Leading Behaviour and Culture can make a difference to your pupils, tackle improvement priorities in your school and strengthen your own leadership skills.

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