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Student behaviour, motivation and the potential of attachment-aware schools to redefine the landscape

Richard Parker

The starting point for our article (Parker & Levinson, 2018) was the apparent contradiction in current government policy between an essentially top-down, ‘zero tolerance’ behaviourist model of discipline in schools, as in the Bennett report (2017), and an emergent emphasis on the role of schools in promoting mental health and wellbeing, as in the green paper Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision (DHSC & DfE, 2017). We had both been involved in empirical research that indicated the importance of supporting the whole child, albeit from slightly different methodological perspectives. The Education Policy in Practice project at Bath Spa University had undertaken a number of action research projects with vulnerable groups (see Parker, 2012). Martin’s ethnographic research with excluded groups such as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities (Levinson, 2014), and young people in a pupil referral unit (Levinson & Thompson, 2016) had come to similar conclusions: that an approach to young people that acknowledged their identities and emotional needs was more likely to motivate them to make best use of educational opportunities.

‘We concluded that an approach to young people that acknowledged their identities and emotional needs was more likely to motivate them to make best use of educational opportunities.’

In the article we wanted to explore how this contradiction had come about, and how educational thinkers had come to evolve separate discourses on behaviour and wellbeing. We look at this in terms of educational philosophy, history and government policymaking. Philosophically, we consider the implications of Dewey’s (1938/1997) distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education, and discuss their validity in the context of education debates from 1970 onwards. We warn against a facile equation of the two approaches with specific party policies, preferring an approach derived from Bailey and Ball (2016) that indicates the importance of continuities and discontinuities within an essentially neoliberal political economy.

My colleagues and I had already argued that strategies such as ‘attachment-aware schools’ did constitute an alternative to behaviourist strategies (Parker et al, 2016). In this paper we give detailed consideration to critiques of this approach, including concerns from psychotherapists that a universal model is not sufficiently discriminating and may actively harm traumatised children (Golding, 2012), and from social pedogogy that attachment per se has become a catch-all explanation that avoids issues of community engagement, social identity and agency (Smith et al, 2017). Another strand of thought, drawing on Foucault, suggests that the ‘emotionalising’ of classroom relationships, while apparently liberatory, is actually another form of ‘soft power’ whereby children are prepared to take a normalised role in the neoliberal workforce (Ecclestone, 2017).

While we acknowledge the validity of such critiques, we argue that inclusive approaches can and do provide a counterbalance to prevailing educational discourses and approaches. Challenging the separation between the learning child and the feeling child, and enhancing classroom relationships, connections between learning and experience, enjoyment of new knowledge/skills and, in general, motivation, seem of greater salience in improving engagement than behaviour/control mechanisms in schools.

This blog post is based on the article, ‘Student behaviour, motivation and the potential of attachment‐aware schools to redefine the landscape’, by Richard Parker and Martin P. Levinson, which is published in the British Educational Research Journal. It is free-to-read for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley. 


Bailey, P. L. J. & Ball S. J. (2016). The coalition government, the general election and the policy ratchet in education: A reflection on the ‘ghosts’ of policy past, present. In M. Bochel & M. Powell (Eds.) The Coalition Government and Social Policy (pp 127–152). Bristol: Policy Press.

Bennett, T. (2017). Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise better behaviour. London: Department for Education.

Department of Health [DHSC] & Department for Education [DfE] (2017). Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision. Retrieved from

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and Education. New York: Simon and Shuster. (Original work published 1938)

Ecclestone, K. (2017). Behaviour change policy agendas for ‘vulnerable’ subjectivities: The dangers of therapeutic governance and its new entrepreneurs. Journal of Education Policy, 32(1), 48–62.

Golding, K. (2012). Observing children with attachment difficulties at school: A tool for identifying and supporting emotional and social difficulties. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Levinson, M. P. (2014). “What’s the plan?” “What plan?” Changing aspirations among Gypsy youngsters, and implications for future cultural identities and group membership. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(4), 1–21.

Levinson, M. P. & Thompson, M. (2016). “I don’t need pink hair here”: Should we be seeking to reintegrate youngsters without challenging school cultures? The International Journal on School Disaffection, 12(1), 23–43.

Parker, R (2012) ‘Developing projects to improve outcomes for children and young people through university partnerships.’ Educationalfutures, 4 (3). pp. 18-29. ISSN 1758-2199

Parker, R. & Levinson, M. P. (2018) ‘Student behaviour, motivation and the potential of attachment‐aware schools to redefine the landscape’, British Educational Research Journal.

Parker, R., Rose, J. & Gilbert, L. (2016). Attachment Aware Schools: An alternative to behaviourism in supporting children’s behaviour? in H. Lees & N. Noddings (Eds.) The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education (pp.463–483). London: Macmillan.

Smith, M., Cameron, C. & Reimer, D. (2017). From Attachment to Recognition for Children in Care, British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1606–1623