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Forget those quick fixes on discipline

The harder pupils come, the harder schools have to work to cope with their behaviour, says Sandy Peterson

Our Holyrood politicians have thrown another bag of money at badly behaved pupils: it will pay for new and raw recruits for the behaviour conflict.

London politicians have promised smaller classes, partly as a response to concerns about behaviour. Such political gestures are well meant - but fail to acknowledge the nature or extent of the behaviour problem in schools.

Appointing extra staff looks good but isn't. Putting untrained people with no strategies into situations that require exceptional skill often causes more trouble than it avoids. Reductions in class sizes are clearly welcome and may help the management of the class as a whole, but the determined disruptive will perform in a group of any size.

I can understand the attraction of cheap and cheerful remedies. It is unfair to accuse the politicians of woolly thinking when there is no clear message about behaviour coming from the teaching profession. We seem equally satisfied with sticking-plaster solutions. A quick in-service, an afternoon guru session, an off-the-shelf behaviour pack. These enjoyable titbits feed and distract the howling hounds of the staffroom.

Looking further back, we can add to the list of worthy failures - and this is uncomfortable for those of us who once adopted these random strategies with a naive belief that they would, on their own, change pupils'


* One-to-one interviews. Flatter to deceive as they extract commitments and promises that do not last to the end of the corridor.

* Groupwork. Given almost religious reverence as an automatically "good thing", groupwork is as likely to create a negative gang culture as it is to be a positive force for good.

* Waiting for the outside expert. The mythical messiah, who will tell us what is wrong and give us the cure, is a good excuse for doing nothing while we wait - for months or years.

* Telling parents. Getting them to sign behaviour contracts guaranteeing that their sondaughter will come to school every day and be good - the same child who rarely comes home at night and hasn't obeyed a parental instruction since they were five.

* Detentions and punishment exercises. For the pupils who will do them, they are effective; for those who won't, they become badges of disrespect in a competition for infamy.

* Sin bins. Deliberately nasty rooms in which pupils do deliberately demeaning tasks are loved by those who love prisons, ignoring the truth that both usually make bad people worse.

* Exclusions. Undoubtedly necessary - and effective when done the right way for the right reason - but rendered impotent by wild overuse, or when used as a sop to angry staff.

* The off-site alternative. Removal from mainstream school is right for some, debatable for others - and catastrophic for those whose futures are defined by their wrong classification as deviants.

* The local "project". Often run by a children's charity or organisation.

Connects with those that the school rejects, but then gets trapped by the youngsters into an antisocial conspiracy against the world.

The problem with all of the above is not that they are wrong in themselves - but that they are not part of a coherent policy, with a recognisable aim linked to a workable strategy. In many schools, punishment and support are not complementary parts of a plan: they are mutually hostile approaches from people with opposing views. Such inconsistency breeds confusion among pupils and disagreement among staff - a sure recipe for cooking up more bad behaviour.

The only way to change behaviour is to be as thorough in tackling the problem as was the destructive process that created it. We are not talking about "naughty children" or "mischievous brats"; we are talking about youngsters who are beyond control, beyond fear and sometimes even beyond reach.

The only schools that are having success in managing behaviour are those that undertake a major team exercise with ruthless determination and dogged persistence. It is difficult to describe the model for success - because each whole-school behaviour policy must be tailored to the particular circumstances of that institution. However, some structures and practices do seem common to all.

For the management:

* A comprehensive behaviour policy that doesn't just set wishful standards but details workable strategies to achieve them - and fully involves pupils, staff, parents and community in its day-to-day development and maintenance.

* A "duty head system" which is not the token and meaningless pretence that it often is but the number one priority for the senior management team. The duty person is able to be immediately contacted and must immediately respond - and have a known and practised strategy for handling problems.

* A school workbase for pupils whose behaviour means they have to move, temporarily, from mainstream. A place of silence and useful work, neither coffee bar nor dungeon.

* Supervision of public areas, done by people trained and skilled for a difficult task.

For departments or sections:

* A version of the school policy, customised to fit the particular situation.

* Staff support system that recognises each teacher's difficulties and devises strategies to suit their skill and style.

* A "local removal" system that allows pupils who disrupt to be easily moved to another (appropriate) classroom. Such a structure deals with a big percentage of moderately serious misbehaviour.

For teachers:

* A method for handling behaviour that is used by every teacher and known to every pupil. This is often present in theory but absent in practice.

* Classroom practice that contains mandatory "positives" - with teachers expected to be welcoming, encouraging and fair.

* A planned and methodical response to bad behaviour, so that teachers know what they are doing and pupils know what to expect. This is again often "recommended" practice, which means the good teachers do it and the weaker ones don't, thus invalidating its overall effect.

For behaviour support staff:

* Individual programmes (IEPs or similar) that describe in detail the strategies to be used - by teachers, managers and support staff - to manage the behaviour of pupils referred because of their difficult behaviour.

* A workbase as a secure and constant foundation from which to build an appropriate programme that will balance segregation and integration according to need and ability.

* Credible methods for working one-to-one with challenging youngsters - and all staff trained to use them.

It is, of course, difficult to describe in general terms a strategy that depends for its success on its scrupulous detail. There is no great disagreement about the objective: but there is avoidance of the task of achieving it because of the implications for all involved.

It is much easier to talk vague positives than supervise the no-go playgrounds; easier to shout at a group of pupils than plan a programme for each individual offender; easier to recommend a book or a video than to spend hours hammering out a class management plan; easier to soundbite the public rather than tell them the serious but unpleasant truth - that new initiatives are no substitute for the hard work that is the only way to change behaviour.

Sandy Peterson is a consultant on behaviour systems for schools.

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