Laura Oxley is a 3rd year part time PhD student in the Department of Education, University of York. Her research explores senior leaders’ experiences and views on different approaches to behaviour management in schools. Alongside studying for her PhD, Laura works with secondary schools to support young people who are at risk of exclusion from school. Laura recently presented at the WR DTC Interdisciplinary Summer Conference on Education (WISE21) , the department’s first postgraduate student conference. This is the first in a series of posts related to the event. 

The predominant system of behaviour management in English schools is based on extrinsic motivation, utilizing an interventionist approach of rewards and sanctions. While this system has been largely successful for the majority of students, there is a core minority of young people who lack the skills to be able to respond in the appropriate way. These students often become caught in a cycle of challenging behaviour and sanctions, which gradually escalates to the point of school exclusion and disengagement with education. Research suggests that a sanction based approach tends to be ineffective in changing the behaviour of persistently challenging students (Thorsborne and Blood, 2013; Martinez, 2009; Greene, 2008; Searle, 2001; Kinder, Kendall, Downing, Atkinson and Hogarth, 1999). Despite this, the majority of English schools continue to use this approach.

There are alternative systems of behaviour management which have seen success in dealing with persistently challenging behaviour. All of these approaches share the common trait of being based on building and maintaining positive relationships with the young people involved. One example of an approach that is gradually increasing in popularity in schools is restorative practice. The roots of this approach are in the criminal justice system where it has been successful in reducing rates of re-offending in youth crime (Smith, 2014; Department of Justice Northern Ireland, 2011; Youth Crime Commission, 2010). Restorative practice is based on positive relationships and repairing any harm that has been caused (Thorsborne and Blood, 2013). There is an emphasis on working with the young people to resolve issues rather than imposing a set of consequences on them.

In my research, I take a phenomenological approach to exploring the views and experiences of head teachers about different ways of managing challenging behaviour. The aim is to answer the question ‘why do interventionist approaches remain the predominant means of responding to student behaviour in English schools?’ In order to explore this, semi-structured interviews are being conducted with head teachers and other senior leaders at schools across England. In total, thirteen interviews have been conducted so far with participants from primary schools, secondary schools, independent schools, and Pupil Referral Units. These were in-depth exploratory interviews, which will be analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA).

IPA is a qualitative methodology that is experientially focused. The IPA methodology recognises that the researcher cannot directly share the participant’s experience but only gain an understanding of it through what the participant says (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009). There are essentially two filters between the experience and the research. The experience is first perceived by the participant, then the participant’s perception of the experience is recounted to the researcher, who then interprets this into a coherent meaning for the research. Sample sizes in IPA studies tend to be small and participants must be drawn from a purposeful and homogenous ‘expert group’. In this case, the participants needed to be senior school leaders in a position to have sole or significant influence over the way student behaviour is managed in their schools. Using this methodology will allow a focus on the experience of each individual participant. In addition to the interviews, the behaviour management policies from each participant’s school will be analysed to consider the language that is used to talk about behaviour and the school’s approach to behaviour management.

To triangulate the data gathered from the interviews, head teachers at state funded English secondary and primary schools, both mainstream and Pupil Referral Units, will be invited to participate in a national online survey. It is intended that the large sample of data obtained from the survey will enhance the rich qualitative data gathered from the interviews. The sample will include approximately three hundred Pupil Referral Units and seven hundred mainstream schools, giving a total sample size of around one thousand.

International case studies will also be conducted to provide a comparison to the predominant system of behaviour management used in English schools. The countries that have been selected are Scotland, the Netherlands and Bhutan. Scotland has been selected as it is geographically very close to England, yet there is a significant difference between the number of school exclusions in Scotland and the number in England. School exclusions in Scotland are much lower and there is generally more acceptance of alternative approaches such as restorative practice. Semi-structured interviews have been conducted with three senior school leaders at Scottish secondary schools, one at a Scottish primary school, and one with a senior educational consultant who has worked with a number of schools in Scotland.

School exclusions in Europe are generally much lower than in England. The Netherlands has a particularly low exclusions rate and, in a recent UN survey, children in the Netherlands were classed as being the happiest in Europe. Participants are in the process of being recruited from schools in the Netherlands and it is intended that interviews will take place over the summer period.

Bhutan is a small country close to Nepal. In place of measuring Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Bhutan has a policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). This provides a holistic framework for education. In addition, Bhutan has only moved away from monastic education in the last few decades so the development of a progressive, Western-style education system is still in the early stages. Bhutan has the opportunity to learn from the best practice of Western countries whilst avoiding the difficulties that have become embedded in our education system and society in general. It is hoped that participants from schools in Bhutan can be recruited to take part in interviews about the impact of the GNH policy on the education system and how they are introducing a more progressive system of education.

My research aims to highlight and share the good practice in managing challenging student behaviour that is already happening in some schools, as well as identifying the barriers as to why alternative approaches to interventionist systems are not more widespread within English schools. The intention is that the findings of my research will support schools to overcome these obstacles and to develop more effective ways of dealing with persistently challenging behaviour. This will be beneficial in developing a more productive learning environment, not only for the core minority of persistently challenging students, but for all young people.



Department of Justice Northern Ireland (2011). Report of the Youth Justice System in Northern Ireland. Available at: (accessed 20 January 2015).


Greene, R. W. (2008). Lost at School: Why our kids with behavioural challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.

Kinder, K.. Kendall, S., Downing, D., Atkinson M. and Hogarth, S. (1999). Nil exclusion? Policy and Practice. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Martinez, S. (2009). A System Gone Berserk: How are zero tolerance policies really affecting schools? Preventing School Failure: alternative education for children and youth, 53(3), 153-158.

Searle, C. (2001). An Exclusive Education: race, class, and exclusion in British schools. London: Lawrence and Wishart Limited.

Smith, J. A., Flowers, P. and Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research. London: Sage.

Smith, R. (2014). ‘Re-inventing diversion’ Youth Justice, No. 14(2), pp.109-121.

Thorsborne, M. and Blood, P. (2013). Implementing Restorative Practices in Schools. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Youth Crime Commission (2010) Time for a fresh start: The report of the Independent Commission on Youth Crime and Anti-social behaviour. Available at: (accessed 20 January 2015).