Cut down on 'call-outs'

Over-reliance on senior staff to intervene in pupil misdemeanours affects the whole school, says Paul Dix

Paul Dix

There is a small number of teachers in every school who rack up a disproportionate number of "call-outs". Think Victor Meldrew in a hospital bed with the emergency cord. If the few push the panic button over and over, the time and resources of senior staff quickly run out.

In schools running at 10 or more call-outs an hour, the system is under strain. Senior leaders tire of repetitive castigation and side rooms become crammed with indignant children: "But ... I ... only exhaled ... Can't believe ... Well out of order ... And he sent me out." The system wobbles as the few remove support from the many, and teachers who patiently take children through consequences are left with no support on the few occasions when they really need it.

We used to stand children outside the classroom for a few minutes to cool off, and then go out, speak to them and return them to the room. Now, for reasons still unclear to me, this is regarded as a problem on the grounds of health and safety, child safeguarding or fire risk. So the "on call" team is sent out like trouble-seeking missiles to sweep up miscreants from perilous corridors. Segregation blocks are extended, problems removed, data prepared and an array of people become involved. The trouble is that the further away behaviour is taken from the classroom teacher, the more complicated everything becomes.

There are times when all teachers, regardless of their experience, need to call on support. Starting a new job or changing roles brings new groups of pupils who will test the boundaries until they realise they are not flexible. Removing pupils from the room is an essential part of drawing the lines in the sand with a new group, or of support for new teachers.

For most teachers, getting to the point where a child must be removed from class is a regrettable end to a series of well-rehearsed behaviour strategies. But a few scream "Wolf!" the first time a child provokes an emotional response. Teachers who jump the consequence steps and send pupils out for the smallest misdemeanour cause ripples in the system that affect everyone.

In many schools, the sheer volume of call-outs means that children are not actually removed but "growled at and negotiated back in". Few things are more damaging to the order and discipline of a school than a pupil telling you to "fuck off" and someone trying to negotiate their instant re-entry, saying: "She promises she won't do it again."

The arrival of the "on-call" teacher can become a pantomime of power and subversion. Teacher and offending child vie to retell their version of events. Both the "wronged" child and the righteously indignant teacher are infantilised by the arrival of authority. Who did what to whom and which one is rudeobnoxiousaggressiveslack gives way to an encore of swearing, bag-swinging, audience-cheering chaos.

Such issues are always best dealt with by the classroom teacher and when everyone has time to look at it calmly. It should not be the duty of the on-call adult or anyone else to talk through the incident, issue punishment or make judgement. The class teacher must be in control of the discussion and resolution.

On-call staff must be for support: to remove the child, not to prosecute the crime. There is no need for discussion at the door or the monologue that begins, "Well Mr Dix, I am so glad you have come, perhaps Darrell could explain ..." You undermine your own authority and risk intransigence from the child: "I'm not going anywhere with you." No words are needed, nor explanation, nor castigation. The perfect on-call performance has few lines - just that weary look of disappointment matched with a healthy lack of interest in blame. Responsibility for redrawing the boundaries is left for the class teacher to lead.

Sometimes a growling, experienced and respected teacher is useful to have at your side, to bring weight to the message and certainty of unpleasant consequences. But feeding children to the growling beasts of punishment and expecting them to emerge as better human beings is fantasy behaviour management.

Deferring to the arriving adult undermines what you are trying to do. It sends this message to the child: "I can't deal with your behaviour, but she can." Schools that operate the "take him away, convert him into a better-behaved human being and return him to me in a permanent state of humility" system of behaviour management create mighty leaders with many minions. Power is removed from individual teachers. A senior teacher at your side shows unity and resolve. But passing "problems" up the chain and imagining others can control behaviour remotely is futile.

The answer lies in a firm and binding agreement on the triggers for emergency calls and on the role of the support; an agreement that is consistently applied by all, even in the face of the most irritating behaviour. When support is really needed, it can then arrive speedily.

Reduce emergency calls, manage them well and fixed-term exclusions will fall. Senior staff can come and say hello and spend more time with the majority of the children, who deserve as much attention as the few.

Paul Dix is touring the UK with his one-man behaviour show, keynote speeches and seminars. Visit

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Paul Dix

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