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Crash Bang Wallop: Girls fighting

Poor pupil behaviour is driving you mad. While extreme behaviour involving physical assault is rare, low level disruption is not. Disciplinary procedures are taking up increasing amounts of your time and many of you feel isolated; it's sometimes hard to admit to colleagues that you're having difficulties.

Some of you say you get it right some of the time. You manage behaviour well and are supported by your schools. But sometimes, no matter how good you are, it all goes wrong.

How do you get it right? It depends on your character, the character of your pupils, the nature of your school and the nature of the incident. But there are common threads, ideas and solutions.

Over the following 10 weeks, we're asking you to share your experiences with the Friday forum. We're not telling you how to do it: it's about you telling us how you've managed a particular kind of behaviour on a particular day. Headteacher Mike Kent, local authority adviser Liz Henning, sixth-former Meg Shakesheff and psychiatrist Raj Persaud join the debate.

You can too, by going to

* It's a long haul from one side to the other of Cefn Hengoed community school in inner-city Swansea. Having lost its sixth form, the school, and its sprawling 1960s corridors, swallows up its 700 11 to 16-year-olds.

Deputy head Geoff Brookes (pictured) makes it his business to walk about on a regular vigil, ensuring order. You never know what's around the corner.

Like the day he came across two girls fighting. It doesn't happen often in his school, and the last time he had to deal with it, another member of staff was with him to help tease fingers from hair. This time he was alone with no time to summon help. Suzie and Gemma may have been just 12 years old, but they were raining blows, trying to inflict serious damage. Had he been dealing with boys, Mr Brookes would have plunged in to pull them apart. But as a male teacher, how do you pull girls apart? Where do you put your hands? There was no alternative but to go for the arms, risking harm himself from legs that were still kicking. "I caught hold of Suzie's hands and held on to them, standing between her and Gemma, trying to get her to focus her attention on me."

Mr Brookes is well aware of the risks he runs making physical contact with pupils, but is in no doubt that as a teacher he has a duty to diffuse pupil aggression and that the only way he could have stopped and resolved the fight was to intervene physically. "My responsibility at that time was to prevent someone from being hurt," he says. "Standing on the side saying, 'Come on girls, stop now' wasn't going to work. To ask someone to stop fighting is to appeal to their logical thinking when they're as far away from that process as can be. You just have to get in there. If someone is going to make an accusation against you, they're probably the type who would do it anyway no matter how you acted, so you have to do what you feel is right."

Teachers, he believes, have a duty to establish their presence on such occasions and focus attention on themselves. "You have to show pupils that you have a job to do; that you have a duty to sort things out."

Geoff Brookes has been a teacher for 31 years, and has worked in inner-city schools in Wales for the past 20. He is drawn to the challenges. He also relishes the unpredictability of the school environment; that no two days are the same. "In this school we have 722 kids and 40 staff, all interacting in a random way, everybody having good and bad days. It would blow any computer up. Sometimes, if I am sharing a good book with pupils, I think the job is so wonderful and cannot believe I am being paid to do it.

On other days I feel I'm not being paid enough. I feel confident most of the time but things happen every day that challenge and still, every day, I question the way I do things."

Girls' aggression, he says, can be particularly challenging. In this instance Suzie, though being restrained, was reaching out to kick Gemma while she was down, slumped dramatically against the corridor wall. Mr Brookes knew the girls, once angered to this extent, would be impervious to reason. "Girls fighting is more difficult to deal with than boys," he says.

"They don't fight often, and when they do it's because they've probably been provoked by words over a lengthy period and they are extremely angry.

Boys' fights generally come out of nowhere, they're for the moment and usually about status or the pecking order at that time. Girls are slower to anger, but calming them can be a lengthier process as well."

As Gemma and Suzie had attracted an audience - a little circle of goggle-eyed peers - Mr Brookes asked two of them to help Gemma to her feet and take her off to the music lesson, where they'd all been heading before warfare broke out. He continued to hold on to Suzie "because she was still so angry. She kept asking me to let go but I took her through the school still holding on to one wrist; I couldn't be sure of what she would do. It was only when I had sat her down in our pastoral office that I let go." By this time Suzie's head of year had arrived, a woman Suzie knew well, and Mr Brookes left them together to talk through what had happened.

Relationships between girls, he believes, are testing because although physical spats might be few and far between, disputes tend to be long-running and any bullying is of an insidious nature. Girls' aggression tends to be verbal and hard to trace: on the telephone, through text messages, out of school. "Girls are attuned to relationships and keep the hurt going for long periods. As teachers we have to watch for tell-tale signs, a sudden change in group dynamics, looking out for the girl who is suddenly isolated," says Mr Brookes

The teacher's job, he says, is to ensure that girls doing the bullying are aware of how damaging it can be. "You have to explore with them the consequences of what they are doing. You cannot tell someone to like someone, but you can try to make sure a pupil is not victimised; you can spread the word among colleagues to keep an eye on certain relationships."

Ignoring situations is not an option. "I wouldn't want to work in a school where teachers ignore these things, fail to share information or pass by on the other side."

Gemma and Suzie had indeed been verbally abusing each other. Having handed Suzie securely over to her head of year, Mr Brookes went back to the music lesson to make sure Gemma had arrived safely, and took her to one side to talk the incident through. Still very agitated, she explained that she and Suzie had been calling each other names in their previous lesson, and Suzie had snapped. The head of year finally resolved the issue by putting Gemma in detention for bullying and Suzie in detention for attacking Gemma. She contacted their parents and the girls attended the detention together the following day, during which they re-established a friendship.

Geoff Brookes says he is "relaxed and informal" with pupils, but believes his effectiveness stems from his abilities to teach rather than manage children. As the only deputy, he is responsible for curriculum, staffing and finance, but he still teaches a half timetable and believes the thing pupils respond to most is his abiding interest in his subject, English. "I want kids to do well in it because I believe it will help shape what sort of people they become. They respond to that. You have to believe in your subject to be confident in it and you have to like kids. I have never met a good teacher who doesn't like kids and I have never met a good teacher whom children don't like."

The behaviour he finds most difficult to deal with is being ignored by a pupil; for example, the pupil who refuses to open a textbook when asked to turn to a certain page. "Teaching is a personal investment, and if someone is ignoring your requests you are being devalued as a person," he says. "If they tell you to 'eff off' at least they are listening to you. Being ignored is more damaging. I wouldn't disrupt a lesson to make someone open a book, but I would find a way during that lesson of getting close enough to talk to them quietly about what they are doing. If they continued to be unresponsive I would keep them back afterwards, contact their parents, insist that the work is done.

"It can take up so much time, but you have to deal with it because of the politics of the classroom. The other kids are watching how you respond."

Friday magazine is offering every reader a free copy of Elaine Williams's TES survival guide, Managing Behaviour (worth pound;2.99). Simply collect eight of the 10 tokens that will be printed in Friday throughout our series. Details of how to obtain your copy will appear in a few weeks' time. You can find token 1 on page 3

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