Behaviour in Scottish Schools 2023

The fifth wave of this study shows that while pupil behaviour remains good overall, it has worsened since 2016.
Children in school running
  • Author:
    Scottish Centre for Social Research
  • Publishing date:
    28 November 2023

About the study

The Scottish Government commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research to conduct a fifth wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research (BISSR), first undertaken in 2006. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 wave of BISSR was postponed, with the result that there was a seven year gap between the fourth wave of BISSR, conducted in 2016, and this iteration of the study. The research in 2023 explored the headteachers’, teachers’ and support staff members’ views of relationships and behaviour in publicly-funded mainstream schools, as well as the views of key local authority representatives across Scotland. The overall aim of this study was to provide a robust and clear picture of relationships and behaviour in publicly-funded mainstream schools, and of current policy and approaches aimed at supporting relationships and behaviour.


The consensus of headteachers, class teachers and support staff was that there has been a general deterioration in the behaviour of pupils in primary and secondary schools in Scotland since 2016. Although the majority of pupils were still said to behave well and cause teaching staff few difficulties, in 2023 all school staff groups reported that there was an increase in nearly every measure, from the low level to more serious disruptive behaviours. Perceptions of pupil behaviour tended to be worse among teachers and support staff than headteachers. On the whole, behaviour was found to be worse in secondary schools, with the exception of physical aggression and violence, both directed at other pupils and towards staff, which were more often experienced in primary schools. COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns were seen to be partly responsible for deteriorating behaviour; however, it was argued that this had accentuated a negative trend that was already being experienced in schools. Emerging issues reported in 2023 included the impact of mobile phone and social media use, vaping, in-school truanting and increased misogyny and gender-based abuse among male pupils. The research points to a culture shift towards a focus on relationships, restorative practice and nurturing approaches and away from punitive approaches. However, while staff were supportive of the principles of relationship-based approaches, they raised concerns about how these approaches are implemented in practice, particularly in terms of a perceived lack of consequences in current positive approaches and the lack of alternative options and resources for pupils.

The research also found that:

  • Staff in primaries and secondaries were generally positive about the level of support received from other staff within their school.
  • However, secondary staff reported more negative experiences of support than those in primaries.
  • Staff interviewees felt less well supported by their managers than by their peers. Support staff do not always feel well supported by teachers and experience difficulties accessing appropriate training
  • Perception among school staff that LA support is lacking. 
  • Findings suggest that serious disruptive behavioural incidents may be under-reported in schools and to the local authority.


The research involved a quantitative survey (of headteachers, teachers and support staff) and in-depth qualitative research (with headteachers, teachers, support staff and local authority representatives). Staff in a stratified sample of 508 primary schools and all 330 eligible secondary schools were invited to participate in the survey. As was the case in 2016, the survey was conducted online, though support staff members were also given the option of completing paper questionnaires. Survey fieldwork was carried out between 27 February 2023 and 12 April 2023. The overall school staff survey response rate was 43%, while the achieved sample was 3754. A programme of qualitative research was conducted between February and July 2023 to add context and detail to the survey findings and explore new and emerging issues in depth. The qualitative research comprised interviews with headteachers and teachers, and focus groups with classroom-based support staff, involving a total of 109 staff at 14 schools (6 primary schools, 8 secondary schools), and interviews with 30 local authority education representatives.