By adopting a consistent whole-school approach to rewards and sanctions, we achieved a marked improvement in attitudes to learning – and reduced teachers’ workload, says Calvin Robinson
Behaviour in our school was always considered good, especially in comparison with other schools in the area. But I didn’t want to settle for good. You can’t expect to have outstanding teaching and learning if there are still lots of low-level behaviour issues.
I wanted our school to be a place that anyone could turn up and teach in, a place a supply teacher would want to return to.
So, with a colleague – and the principal’s backing – I set to work on a new “behaviour for learning” policy, heavily influenced by Tom Bennett’s independent review on behaviour in schools.
Changing the behaviour culture of a school is a daunting task – and one that can feel like an uphill struggle. Ultimately, it comes down to outlining clear rewards and sanctions, and being completely consistent with them.
For a new behaviour system to work, and for it to genuinely be used throughout the school, we knew we had to get the whole staff body on board.
We decided to form a working party, with an open invitation to all staff members (teaching and otherwise), rather than taking a top-down approach. This enabled us to get feedback from a large number of stakeholders, including learning support assistants, admin staff and the school council. It was less a consultation process, more an open exploration of ideas.
It became clear that centralised detentions would need to be a key part of the shift we wanted to make.
Teachers wanted to leave behind a Wild West system of everyone running their own detentions around already busy schedules. What was desired was a central detention in one place, manned by a dedicated supervisor and/or senior leadership team member. So, that’s what we did first.
Sending all pupils to one location means they are more likely to be held accountable for their actions. It stops them playing teachers off against each other with the old “I can’t do your detention today, Sir, because I’ve already got one with Miss”. It also means there is a single list of names to be checked at the gate, to catch any attempted escapees.
Monitoring and managing
Logging detentions on a central system means the leadership team can monitor the number of detentions pupils are receiving, prompting further consequences or conversations where necessary.
Heads of year can also give additional pastoral assistance and provide report cards to more closely monitor those who need it. This means fewer pupils are getting to the point of earning detentions in the first place.
Once this is rolled out, it’s helpful to have very specific detention logs on SIMS (or a similar platform) so that pastoral teams can collate the data and see what the most common behaviour problems are throughout the school (fighting versus chewing gum, for example), breaking it down by specific demographics, such as year group or class. We found, for instance, that a worrying number of detentions were being given out for racism and anti-Semitism, highlighting a problem that we might not have been aware of had this data not given us access to the wider picture. As a result, we implemented interventions, including sessions around inclusion, religious tolerance and hate speech.
There were certainly challenges to shifting our approach. For centralised detentions to work effectively, we needed to redevelop our points-based consequence system, giving positive points to reward pupils and negative behaviour points to sanction them. It doesn’t matter what you call them or how you distribute them, but consistency is absolutely key here.
It’s also important for all teachers to subscribe to this policy; one “cool” teacher makes life difficult for everyone else. If a teacher is finding it difficult to be both warm and strict, they may need some support. It helps to remind pupils that you are sanctioning them for their own good because you want them to do better. Ensure that the rules are explicit and visible so there are no excuses.
Visiting different secondary schools, I found that a single warning followed by a detention was the most effective approach. Giving multiple warnings waters down their meaning and provides too many chances for pupils to misbehave, which some will take advantage of.
We also had to make sure the detentions were a meaningful deterrent. We originally tried 15-minute sessions, which did not work. Pupils would trade off misbehaviour in lessons with those 15 minutes after school, knowing that their friends would likely wait for them anyway. A detention needs to be a punishment for it to work: 60 minutes is a strong deterrent, while half an hour is a reasonable compromise.
Of course, any good behaviour system needs rewards to balance out the sanctions. Sometimes the carrot works as well as the stick. Personally, I’m not in favour of forced ratios of rewards and sanctions as this approach creates a false economy.
If teachers are encouraged to issue, say, 10 rewards for every sanction, it just means you’re left looking for any old reason to give out rewards, making them less meaningful. It’s basic economic inflation. Pupils need to know that if they do really well, they will earn a reward and it won’t be arbitrary. Whichever route you take, consistency counts here, too. If you have a tiered reward structure (merits are worth a certain amount of house points, for example), then house points can be rendered worthless if some teachers are giving out merits like Smarties, while others treat them as the holy grail.
Pupils will come to realise that a house point from Mr X is worth more than a merit from Miss Y. But, ideally, the weighting has to mean something for it to be effective.
Once we had our reward structure in place, we started to think about additional bonuses like Star of the Week during form time, and highlighting pupils with zero behaviour or consequence points in end-of-term celebration assemblies, and so on.
We found it effective to make rewards public and sanctions private, only ever writing names on the board for positive reinforcement (because putting pupils’ names up there for bad behaviour only adds to their infamy or embarrassment, which is not what we’re after). I’ve always written sanctions in a little black book. Eventually you get to the point where even reaching for the book is a visual warning that makes pupils reconsider their next action.
Marching in step
A question that I’m still pondering is whether good behaviour should be rewarded or simply expected. I’ve always rewarded for extraordinary effort, progress and great work. I believe that satisfactory behaviour or work doesn’t usually deserve a reward – it’s a minimum expectation. I’d rather encourage pupils to stand out and be brilliant. But I do understand this is a hard line to take, and many people are more comfortable rewarding for expected behaviour.
Explicit rules with clear rewards and sanctions, and a centralised detention system, were a great first step in changing the behaviour culture of our school. We reviewed our behaviour system a year later and found that we had accomplished a majority of the proposed changes.
There were still key areas to work on, such as having a functioning on-call system, but longer detentions were working as a deterrent, more reward points were being given out than negative behaviour points, and, crucially, staff were a lot less stressed.
Calvin Robinson spent seven years in the technology industry before moving to the education sector. Since then, he has been a classroom teacher, middle leader, assistant principal and governor at schools in London
This article originally appeared in the 25 October 2019 issue under the headline “How centralised detentions get pupils’ attention”