School contracts designed to improve the behaviour of difficult children are unlikely to work unless pupils believe they are fair, constructive and unambiguous. At present the majority of pupils with contracts do not appear to believe that they are.
In special schools, contracts are used to monitor, improve and even pre-empt undesirable activities. In mainstream schools, contracts tend to be issued by the schools in reaction to specific incidents of bad behaviour.
They seldom involve parents or pupils in planning and often demand compliance with five or more school rules, research by Philip Garner of Brunel University has revealed.
The pupils he interviewed saw contracts as very one-sided and often felt that staff did little to help them achieve what the contract demanded. One boy complained: "You're just given the contract and told to sign it."
A majority of children believed that a contract had encouraged them to work harder and behave better. But Philip Garner, who questioned 84 pupils in four special and four secondary schools, concludes that three criteria must be met if contracts are to be effective.
First, the contract must be seen to be realistic and fair. Many pupils felt a sense of injustice at being excluded from the planning process and others felt that teachers were inconsistent in applying sanctions.
Second, the contract must be written in clear language. Many of the pupils interviewed said that they did not understand the wording of their contract or that it was too long and complicated. One waved his document at the researcher: "Look at this . . . it embarrasses me. It's like a will or something that only a lawyer would understand."
Third, the contract must involve pupils, parents and teachers in its construction, a procedure which is more rare in mainstream than in special schools, where contracts are often personalised as "agreements".
Contracts which pupils regard as a form of punishment or as a means of supporting teachers are unlikely to be successful, Philip Garner concludes.
"How effective are behaviour contracts?" by Philip Garner, School of Education, Brunel University.