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Hey Behaviour Tsar, Leave Them Stickers Alone!

01/03/2016 17:04 GMT | Updated 02/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Last week, one of the million teacher-generated resources on the TES.com platform was singled out for criticism by the media. The resource asked pupils to decide whether Scott of the Antarctic was "a complete idiot who didn't even get to the South Pole first". This enraged campaigners who claimed it was, "part of a hidden agenda to rubbish British heroes by politically correct zealots". When approached for comment, the Department for Education (DFE) took an eminently sensible approach: it claimed "when it came to online resources, it trusted teachers to decide on the best ones to use".

Amen to that. To teachers across the country, it must have been genuinely refreshing to hear that the DFE trusted their professional judgement about what best to teach, and that if they chose to download and use such a lighthearted resource to engage students, then they could get on and do so without fear of government interference and censure.

The DFE's comments were consistent with the tendency of the department - in particular schools minister Nick Gibb and education secretary Nicky Morgan - to place more trust in how teachers teach in the classroom, and to hand far greater autonomy down to school level - in terms of budget, teacher training and also, if not what is taught, then certainly how lessons should be taught in the classroom.

So it was all the more jarring to pick up the Sunday Times on the weekend to read that, bizarrely, the government looks set to declare war on the humble sticker. Yes, it seems the gold star, something that pretty much every adult in the country would remember receiving at some point or another during their school days - followed by a momentary sense of pride, and sometimes a reward if enough are accumulated - is now under attack.

The gold star appears to have gotten the goat of the DFE's new "behaviour tsar", Tom Bennett, who the Sunday Times reports as claiming that sticker charts are, "inappropriate for old children and that even primary schools should be prepared to drop them". His concern is apparently that the approach can be time-consuming and that "if teachers find this system is strangling their teaching, then it should be jettisoned".

According to the Sunday Times, these recommendations are likely to shortly feature in a report on how to train teachers to maintain discipline in the classroom, commissioned after concerns were raised by Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, "that misbehaviour, such as using mobile phones, is costing up to an hour a day in lost teaching time".

Now, Bennett is - by all accounts - a truly inspirational teacher, and has long been highly respected across the teaching profession as a "guru" when it comes to behaviour. His fantastic researchED events are a huge draw for teachers the world over. But there is an important distinction between a "guru" and a "tsar", the first offers advice and insights you can take-or-leave, whereas the second carries the weight of government. While tsarly advice is certainly different from official government policy, in the eyes of many, the distinction can risk becoming blurred.

The debate around whether or not to use what academics dub "extrinsic motivators" such as stickers in the classroom has been around since Year Dot. And, indeed, these are rehearsed in the Sunday Times article - with U.S. parenting expert Alfie Kohn, who has been making the "case against gold stars" for the past two decades or so - quoted as saying the approach is tantamount to "bribery" and that "the method does not create children who do the right thing long term".

There is substantial evidence on both side of the "for" and "against" camps, and the Sticker Wars will doubtless rage for many years more in academic circles, with both sides pointing authoritatively to their ever-growing evidence bases. But should it really be the role of government to take sides in this debate?

For many years, teachers have used stickers as an important, practical part of their teaching toolkit, often spending money out of their own pocket to endow well-behaved pupils with either a classic gold star, or one of a vast range of motivational stickers that now exist. A representative from Super Stickers - one of the leading producers of stickers in UK schools - tells me that currently times tables stickers are increasingly popular "in light of the increased focus on times tables in light of the new times tables tests announced in January" and "for those primary subjects that don't have written work, such as PE, stickers provide a useful communication tool of achievement for classroom teachers".

One such sticker fan is Maggie Jack, a peripatetic specialist teacher, who would often work with children of various ages, challenging them so their difficulties could be analysed and identified. She explains that, "the end of such a session would always mean they could choose a sticker from the variety that I carry... If they had worked particularly hard, they would be allowed to choose two. There is no doubt that this served not only as a motivator but gave them a tangible acknowledgement of their effort or work. Several children said they had somewhere at home where they kept their stickers - they valued them too."

It is, she claims, "only necessary to see the look on children's faces when they are praised and are given something visible, to know stickers are an essential part of a teacher's tool box. Stickers can be used to incentivise, to motivate, to evaluate work, effort and engagement. They are quick and easy to use, and... they work!"

Stickers are no panacea for behaviour, and like any teaching tool can be overused to the point of ineffectiveness, but if used well they can serve to reinforce positive behaviours - or to be the little spur that incentivises pupils to get their times tables down pat.

So is it really necessary for teachers to "jettison" stickers? Through undertaking her recent well-received Workload Challenge initiative with the teaching profession, education secretary Nicky Morgan received a whopping 43,832 responses. None, as far as I have read, suggest that the use of stickers is onerous on classroom time. Notably, however, they did cite "accountability/perceived pressures of Ofsted" (53 per cent) and "policy change at national level" (34 per cent).

The teaching profession is currently in crisis, with an unprecedented teacher shortage caused both by a failure to attract young graduates into the profession and teachers leaving state-school classrooms in droves, either to work in independent or international schools, or out of the profession entirely. Bold, decisive action is needed to set this issue straight.

The last thing that teachers need right now is micromanagement in the classroom to the level of offering government-sanctioned advice over whether or not to use stickers to reward pupils. While this issue could perhaps seem trivial, if this sticker situation is symptomatic of a broader trend of classroom interference to come, it is likely to only exacerbate the teacher shortage further. The DFE should stick to its current line: trust teachers to teach.