‘The day I visited an isolation room – and realised that the strict behaviour strategy was working’

I believe in empowering children and noisy group work, but none of it will be effective unless the pupils have the scaffolding of an effective behaviour strategy, writes a former Labour schools minister

Jim Knight

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It was late morning in north Bristol and I was visiting Henbury School. This is a secondary academy with a significant intake of low-aspiration, white working-class pupils.

I was stood in a classroom where there was absolute silence. Pupils of various ages were working alone, catching up on written work or reading, and sitting at small exam-style desks. 

I was in the “isolation room”.

The pupils – sent there after just two instances of misbehaviour in class – would be present for a whole day plus an hour after school, and any talking or other transgression was marked on the wall. Two transgressions resulted in a call home and three in an automatic fixed-term exclusion.

Welcome to Ready to Learn, a programme which local MP Charlotte Leslie had urged me to visit.

Was this something akin to what Michaela Community School was wanting from its controversial new director of detention? I had found the wording of that ad somewhat alarming, almost as if the successful candidate mustn't like children, and I was worried I was in something similar.

Half an hour later, I was sitting at a table in the headteacher's office talking to a group of pupils about how the system works. One girl in Year 10 described the introduction of the new discipline code a year ago. She told me about being nicknamed "Isolation" at home, and that initially she had an exclusion almost every week. 

But things had now changed: "I tried to break the new system until I realised that the only thing that needed to change was me... I am so much happier, and learning more."

Another girl had arrived from Somalia a couple of years ago with no English. She had hated her bottom set English class because other pupils were so disruptive to her learning, but was now making great progress. She told me: "Ready to Learn has changed my life. I have moved up two sets in English and I enjoy every single minute of my lessons."

Clear, consistent boundaries

It was clear that Ready to Learn was working and giving learners the freedom to learn without constant distraction from low-level disruption. Some wanted changes to the rules but when I asked them if they would vote to bring back the old, more relaxed system, they all wanted to keep Ready to Learn.

It is tough. But children like it. Children like clear, consistent boundaries. And crucially for me, the learning I observed in classes still allowed for energetic, noisy group work – as long as it was focused on learning. 

Children were still allowed to be children and those with behavioral disorders were accounted for in the system design.

I asked Clare Bradford, the headteacher at Henbury, about the implementation. She had taken time to engage fully with parents, staff and pupils about it.

"Our students love it and so do our staff. Four out of five teachers now say they are satisfied with their workload, compared with only three out of five a year ago. Crucially, the proportion of staff happy with discipline in our school has rocketed from 50 per cent to 87 per cent."

The school used to run its own alternative provision and has now closed it down because it no longer needs it, and local schools are now starting to adopt Ready to Learn, too.

I came away from Bristol inspired by Henbury.

I am a strong advocate of empowering children, listening to them, and giving them efficacy, but this mustn't be at the expense of a safe and well-behaved school environment. I can even agree with government behaviour tsar Tom Bennett: "Compassion needs boundaries, and when it has them, anything is possible."

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global, parent company of TES, and a former Labour schools minister. He tweets as @jimpknight

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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