A WIDE-RANGING discussion on school discipline and ethos was the centrepiece of the Crieff conference. It focused on curricular as well as behavioural solutions and showed that Scotland's secondary schools are trying out a multitude of creative ways to implement the Government's pound;23 million strategy of developing alternatives to exclusion.
Dan McGinty, head of St Columba's High in Perth, and David May, head of Craigie High in Dundee, led the discussion and outlined the steps they had taken. The common factor was the need to proceed on a broad front involving parents, pupils, teachers and school management. They both commended the national ethos network for providing schools with contacts, possible solutions and best practice.
Mr May said mainstream schooling was never going to be an option for the hard core of difficult youngsters, and he called on the Scottish Executive to put more money into off-site provision "if they are really serious about social exclusion". In one such centre he had visited in Dundee, the youngsters' attendance had improved, their attainment was better and their self-esteem had grown.
School staffing had to be completely overhauled, Mr May suggested, so that the number of teachers is related not just to the size of the school but also to the number of pupils with special needs and with emotional and behavioural difficulties. More involvement by senior staff and more behavioural support teachers were essential.
The most challenging pupils were at the heart of the debate. Linda Kirkwood, head of Oban High, said more national support and a clearer framework were required. Schools were often left to "DIY". Her school had received additional staffing amounting to 0.5 of a teacher for behaviour support, although she supplemented this from within the school.
Mr McGinty pointed to the paradox that schools with the greatest number of exclusions received more money, but the support was not always there to reinforce inclusive approaches afterwards. He believed that initiatives had to be consolidated on a regular basis with new pupils and new staff: in any three years, a school's policies will be new to half the school.
Ian Duncan, head of Bannerman High in Glasgow, called for better initial and ongoing training for teachers. He also underlined the need for curricular improvements, pointing to the contrast with fourth-year pupils who went to FE colleges, where indiscipline was not an issue. "I often think that one of the worst things we can do with disaffected kids is to put them into classes of 30 with disaffected teachers," he said.
The importance of matching pupils to the right teachers was also underlined by Jim Dalziel, head of Eastbank Academy in Glasgow, who said it was essential to take the "tension" out of schools. "It's time to stop 10 per cent of pupils and 10 per cent of staff dominating the agenda in our schools," he said.
Iain Murray, head of Lanark Grammar, commended the views of Geoff Moss, the behaviour expert, who believes that "schools should teach behaviour in the same way that they teach learning".
The importance of "really getting to know the child" was stressed by Brian Cooklin, head of Stonelaw High in Rutherglen, if the right strategies were to be deployed.
He was suppored by Joan Mowat, the assistant head at Vale of Leven Academy in West Dunbartonshire, who said she worked individually with pupils to motivate them, give them coping strategies to deal with their problems, set targets and help to achieve them. But it was labour-intensive and very hard work.
"There have been times when I've walked out of the door feeling that some of these sessions have been a complete disaster," Mrs Mowat said. "But it does work for some pupils, and it has kept some of them out of trouble."
Bob Fraser, head of Kirkcaldy High, said "the best discipline is a good curriculum". He cited his school's effort to help pupils who arrived in S1 unable to read. This had been so successful that they had an awards ceremony to which their parents turned up, some with camcorders to record the moment. The school was now moving on to those who could not count, but Mr Fraser said they were not necessarily the same group.
Helen O'Rawe, head of Ross High in East Lothian, made a strong plea for schools to respond to parents and pupils, whether it be approaches to teaching or providing karaoke sessions at lunchtimes for those who had behaved well in the previous week.
"Our parents said they wanted to know when their children were not doing their homework, so we spent time on the phone telling them and, while it's not universal, more homework is now getting done," Mrs O'Rawe said.
"Parents said they wanted more information on the progress their children were making, so we now send home reports monthly for the fifth and sixth years and termly for third and fourth year pupils," she added. The school had also abolished most mixed- ability teaching in S1 and S2 in favour of setting, was moving to standardised testing for these years, and planned to introduce Standard grade in S2.
Mrs O'Rawe said: "Parents have been questioning some of the things we've been doing for years but we've simply accepted the dogma that's been handed down, whether we believed it in our hearts and minds or not."
John Irvine, head of Bathgate Academy in West Lothian, stressed the importance of enterprise skills, which he said were "skills for life" and had worked with a group of disaffected youngsters from S2 onwards in his school. They had turned up for every single exam, their attendance was better and their staying-on rates had improved. "It doesn't work for all but it does reduce the number displaying problems," Mr Irvine said.
Catherine Gibson, head of Greenock High in Inverclyde, said the discussion had highlighted the dilemma of the reality of social inclusion as opposed to the rhetoric. "We have to balance the need for very disturbed youngsters to be socialised out of their behaviour against the need for others to go about their business."
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AND FINALLY ...
There should be national discipline standards on school transport, according to Jim Fleming, head of Balfron High in Stirling, where 800 of its 900 pupils are bussed every day.
The police should be more supportive in pursuing and charging local youths who terrorise pupils, Anne Marie Fagan, head of John Ogilvie High in Hamilton. Their failure to act undermined schools' positive behaviour messages.
Brian Cooklin, head of Stonelaw High in South Lanarkshire, said he had no trouble with the police "because I am the police as far as I can see, so I just negotiate with myself".