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A culture of grace and behaviour

Patricia Denison answers your leadership questions

I am coming to the end of my first year in primary headship, during which the whole staff have worked hard to improve literacy levels. Our efforts have paid off and we'll have something to celebrate after we get our Sats results.

The next thing I want to tackle is behaviour. We have an assertive discipline system and a range of rewards and sanctions, but quite honestly, I don't really see their effect. Teachers are worn down by low-level disruption and - in classes with two or more very challenging children - are not coping. Where would you start?

I would not start by making an assumption that behaviour is something which can be tackled by practising a bolt-on system of cause and effect. I am never convinced that giving rewards and sanctions has any lasting effect on motivation; behaviour may be modified, giving the impression of success, but the outcomes are unsustainable. The people we spend our day-to-day lives with are not Pavlov's dogs, or rats performing tricks for food; they are capable of designing and building an environment conducive to well-being. And that's where I would start - by asking them to do it.

What would people say if asked the question: "How would you like to feel when you walk through the door in the morning?"

I suspect you will hear some common themes. Probably the notion of feeling safe, and I would predict that people will talk about respect, a word newly beloved by the Government. Would you hear anything about wanting to be in the mood for learning? It is worth paying attention to the language used to express a desirable emotional state. That is your starting point.

So if they were in this ideal state, what would they see?

I am often bewildered when I visit schools where behaviour is poor to notice the lack of attention given to the physical environment. Seedy, down-at-heel corridors lead into cluttered classrooms which are not designed for learning. Where are the tools and equipment for effective learning and teaching? Where are the products of creative young minds? What is being done to create an environment that nurtures the senses? What would adults and pupils see around them to contribute to this? They will doubtless describe a place that makes strong statements of care, value and aesthetic sensibility; where tools are fit for purpose and materials are of good quality. The impact of a deliberately designed learning place on the emotional equilibrium of pupils and staff cannot be overstated.

What would they hear?

Again, it is worth considering what would not be heard - voices raised in distress, for example. It is interesting that in schools where staff are heard berating children, behaviour is at its worst. Schools have huge challenges to create an atmosphere of courtesy and mutual respect. Many children come from homes where the only interaction they have with their parents is one of barked instructions and relentless argument. We need to create such a tangible culture of grace and warmth that it will be difficult for any child to disturb it. Adults must be role models here. Do they, by their appearance and demeanour, reflect the standards the school is aiming for? And parents must be clear about what you are trying to create. When they are not 100 per cent behind the school, attempts to build this culture are thwarted.Invest time in persuading them.

Start with the end in mind. The picture needs to be clear, well-formed and explicitly described and generated by both pupils and adults. It needs to be expressed in the simplest terms, published and displayed.Then - how to get there. What needs to be done? Who will do what? What physical changes - carpets, furniture, decor - are needed? What routines, processes and codes of conduct should be consistent across the school? Is every member of staff clear about the kind of adult behaviour needed? How should children in distress be supported? Every facet must be considered and performance indicators agreed.

Of course, the journey will be hard. You will need frequent reviews and progress reports - best done by a mix of adults and children - and you will need to respond promptly to glitches. But don't be disheartened or discouraged; stick to your course and celebrate the success that will surely be achieved, bringing with it a reward for all.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads.Do you have a leadership question?

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