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How to switch on the turned off

When pupils opt out of learning, sometimes a whole-school approach is required, finds Darren Evans

When pupils opt out of learning, sometimes a whole-school approach is required, finds Darren Evans

It is a problem that almost every teacher will have to face at some point in their careers, and for the unlucky few it will be a depressing daily challenge: how to engage those hard-to-reach pupils who truant, misbehave or completely switch off during lessons.

The issue has recently been pushed to the top of the educational agenda. The government's behaviour adviser, Charlie Taylor, has said that schools must do more to engage the sort of pupils who are "opting out" of lessons, and Ofsted is changing its inspections to focus more on those who are switching off in class.

Behaviour expert Professor Ken Reid reckons that about 80 per cent of schools in the state sector will face these sorts of issues during an academic year.

"The problem is hard to define because of the very large numbers of pupils who are designated as having some form of special educational need or additional learning need," he says. "Many of those are now educated in regular schools in general classrooms. At one end of the scale you could have pupils with a mild form of dyslexia, but at the other end you could have pupils with serious behavioural problems."

Many primaries in England now have a range of support staff helping the teacher, from classroom assistants and learning mentors to dedicated behavioural support staff. But the fact remains, says Reid, that many teachers are going to come into contact with hard-to-engage children having had little or no specialist training in how to deal with them.

In a 2008 survey, Ofsted defined disengaged pupils as those who displayed one or more of the following characteristics:

- They were regularly non-compliant but not aggressive or threatening, and caused repeated low-level disruptions.

- They were regularly disruptive, challenging or both, which led to repeated entries in the school's incident log, recurring fixed-term exclusions or both.

- They were absent for 20 per cent or more of the available school sessions in the year.

- They were quiet, withdrawn and uninterested in most lessons.

At a classroom level, Reid says there are a number of simple things teachers can do to improve engagement before teaching even begins, such as: greeting pupils as they enter the room and acknowledging them as individuals; having a strategic seating plan so that they are not sat in friendship groups; and getting their attention at the start of the lesson with an eye-catching or interesting introduction to the topic.

The teacher's behaviour and body language can also have a significant influence on pupil behaviour (see panel, right).

However, sometimes the situation is so serious that a response that goes beyond the classroom is required: then you have to take a whole-school approach.

Taking control and getting personal

When David Brunton became head of Earlham High School in Norwich four years ago, he was faced with a situation that, in his own words, was "dire".

The year before, Earlham High had been put in special measures and had posted the fourth-worst GCSE results in the whole of England, with only 6 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-C grades including maths and English. The school's attendance rate was 83 per cent; persistent absence was running at 23 per cent when the expectation was that it should be below 5 per cent.

"There was a fundamental disengagement with the school," says Brunton. "Every hour approximately 25 children were sent out of lessons for their behaviour. We had dedicated members of staff for them. Every day about 10 to 20 children would attend school but wouldn't go to lessons - they just wandered around the corridors.

"And then there were those who didn't come in at all, or would come in for the morning and then go home in the afternoon."

Earlham High was about to undergo a major transformation anyway, moving to new buildings and becoming City Academy Norwich, but Brunton knew he had to regain control.

"You can't have high-quality teaching when the school has lost a certain amount of control," he says. "The first thing was to regain control, to make sure youngsters were where they were supposed to be."

Brunton says he used all available means to get pupils into school: "We used persuasion; we talked to the pupils and their parents about why they were disengaged. But where necessary that was backed up by legal processes."

Two administrators were appointed to monitor attendance data and a senior member of staff was asked to oversee attendance. The academy developed robust procedures and systems to tackle poor behaviour and focus on teaching and learning, but a key philosophy to re-engage pupils was personalisation.

"Of course we talked to (pupils) about the value of education and all the things you would expect us to, and sometimes that switched a light on in a few of them," Brunton says. "But for those it didn't, we had to make changes. For some of our youngsters we found that the normal provision doesn't work for them. We created a curriculum around the pupils that had relevance to them."

An early move that had a huge impact on engagement was arranging off-site courses to give pupils a change of environment and new opportunities. Vocational lessons were arranged for all Year 10 and 11 pupils at City College Norwich, the academy's main sponsor.

"That was so popular we started to look at our own timetable and what we could do to improve our offer," Brunton says. "We wanted to create a personalised curriculum that works for that child. Our thinking was not how can you make the school a success, but how can we make this place successful for you?"

The school started to offer pupils a range of alternative experiences, with 63 options to choose from, including chef skills and boxing fitness.

Brunton knew that it was also important to engage parents and started running parenting programmes with local charitable groups. "I think our parents do care hugely, but often they don't know what to do if their children are misbehaving or truanting," he says. "We do short-term exclusions of up to three days for particularly bad behaviour if other options have been exhausted, and we have a reintegration session when the pupil returns, in which we always involve the parents.

"It's about making parents understand we are on their side. We want to help their child and we don't want to take that punitive action if we can do something else to address the situation."

Changes were made to the classroom experience at City Academy Norwich to re-engage pupils who found it a turn-off. In some areas of the school, lessons are informal. While some pupils sit at desks, you may see others on beanbags or sofas. Pupils are also encouraged to present their work in different ways, so instead of writing an essay they may make a video or a presentation. The academy has embraced digital technologies and even allows pupils to use their mobile phones as learning tools.

"In a recent history lesson, for example, there were QR (quick response) codes hidden around the classroom and the pupils had to find them doing some mock archaeology," Brunton says. "They would scan them in with their smartphones and video clips about the subject they were studying would pop up on their screens. That sort of creativity engages young people."

The changes have had an enormous impact. Within two years the academy had nearly 90 per cent attendance, and this year it is 93 per cent. The year before Brunton arrived, 23 pupils were permanently excluded. In his first year in charge, the figure dropped to one. None have been permanently excluded since, although the punishment remains a possibility for the most serious offenders.

The school's transformation has been praised by politicians and held up as an example of good practice, but Brunton's proudest boast, and the yardstick by which he measures the success, is that pupil numbers have swelled, from 600 when he arrived to 800 this September. Three years ago only 82 pupils applied for Year 7. This year 180 have applied and the school is full.

"For me, that proves that the community has regained its faith," Brunton says.

'School around the child'

Another school that has been praised for engaging disaffected pupils is Sandfields Comprehensive in Port Talbot, South Wales, which has what it calls a "school around the child" approach.

The school is in one of the most deprived areas of Wales and about 75 per cent of pupils enter Year 7 with reading ages below their chronological age. And according to head Michael Gibbon, the effort to engage pupils begins at the front door.

"Some schools forget that the reception area is the first place people see," he says. "Our secretaries have a very warm and friendly relationship with our pupils and their families. They get to know them in great detail and that's a huge help in keeping them engaged with the school."

Sandfields has a comprehensive support network for pupils, including on-site youth workers, counsellors and social services staff, an after-school learning resource centre and one of the few secondary school nurture groups in Wales.

The school also has robust systems and procedures in place, including a database that lists every pupil and details their problems and needs, so that every teacher knows exactly what support they may require.

"We work from the basis that we have to be everything to our pupils," says assistant head Sue Flavell, who is responsible for attendance and behaviour. "Sometimes learning can only start once a number of issues and obstacles have been overcome."

For its 2008 report, Ofsted surveyed 29 secondaries and identified a number of examples of good practice in re-engaging disaffected pupils. Between the schools, 13 per cent of their total cohorts at the time of the survey had been disengaged at one time or another; they had managed to re-engage 78 per cent of those.

Many of the approaches that had the greatest impact are in use at City Academy Norwich and Sandfields. The Ofsted survey found that these success factors included a commitment from staff to meet all pupils' needs; effective monitoring systems to identify pupils at risk; close collaboration between primary and secondary schools to prevent disengagement at transition; the support of a range of adults, including parents; and modifying the curriculum.

Above all, as the experiences of City Academy Norwich and Sandfields show, much depends on the extent to which the school is prepared to be flexible and staff are prepared to go the extra mile for their pupils.

However, Professor Ken Reid says that schools should not overlook another key element: identifying potential problems before they emerge.

"There's a need for much earlier intervention and diagnosis of problems," he says. "Often teachers are reacting to situations that have got out of hand because no one's picked up on the issues early enough."

Classroom dos and don'ts

In their book Tackling Behaviour in Your Primary School, behaviour experts Ken Reid and Nicola Morgan say that a teacher's own behaviour has a significant influence in the classroom. Therefore, teachers must be positive role models for pupils if they want to fully engage them in the learning process. Here are some dos and don'ts:


- Remain in control.

- Catch poor behaviour before it starts.

- Respect and acknowledge race, gender and culture.

- Be fair and consistent when issuing sanctions.

- Inform parents of positive achievements.

- Listen attentively and show interest.

- Look for the win-win solution.

- Evaluate what worked well.

- Disapprove of the behaviour, not the child.

- Ignore minor misdemeanours.

- Reward good behaviour.

- Teach the child to self-manage their behaviour.


- Lose control of the situation.

- Use sarcasm.

- Personalise a pupil's behaviour.

- Get irritated or angry.

- Raise your voice.

- Be uncaring and distant.

- Make threats or promises you cannot keep.

- Condemn the individual's character.

- Reprimand individuals in front of their peers.

- Make personal comments in front of the whole class - instead, do this in one-to-one situations.

Body language

A teacher's body language can have a huge impact on engagement.

- Eye contact is generally associated with trust, rapport and positivity. Develop a steady gaze, as an individual who makes frequent eye contact is seen as confident.

- Convey that you are in control by displaying a calm, relaxed facial expression with a smile to confirm acceptable behaviour.

- Avoid folding your arms as this can indicate a closed, defensive attitude and makes you appear unapproachable. Having your hands in your pockets or fidgeting can give the impression of discomfort or embarrassment.

- Your voice should be clear, positive and non-threatening. Warm and expressive voices draw pupils in and make them want to pay attention.

- Move around the classroom, smiling and making gentle eye contact with everyone. Be a visible presence by standing for as long as possible during each lesson.

Source: Tackling Behaviour in Your Primary School: a practical handbook for teachers (Routledge 2012)

Good practice

In 2008, Ofsted surveyed 29 secondary schools, finding common features that were successful in engaging disaffected students. They included the following:

- Staff shared a commitment to helping the students succeed, which they expressed clearly to students and their families. The school ethos valued and respected the needs of individuals. The students felt part of the school.

- Robust monitoring of academic, personal and social progress, and close collaboration with primary schools and other services, ensured that students who were likely to become disaffected were identified early. They received appropriate support before and after they entered secondary school.

- Teaching assistants provided vital support to individuals, helping them to maintain their interest and cope successfully with any crises. This allowed teachers to focus on teaching the whole class.

- Pastoral support was managed by assigned support staff. They acted as the first point of contact for all parents and carers and they directed them to the most appropriate member of staff if they could not deal with the issue themselves.

- Communication with students and families was very effective, ensuring they were fully involved in the process and had confidence in it. Students knew they were listened to and felt they could contribute to decisions about their future. Home-school liaison staff played a critical role.

- Specific support was very effective, such as temporary withdrawal from classes and training in life skills to help students change their attitudes and improve their learning.

- At key stage 4, a high-quality, flexible curriculum, involving a range of accredited training providers outside the school, was effective in engaging students more in their learning.

Source: Good Practice in Re-engaging Disaffected and Reluctant Students in Secondary Schools (Ofsted 2008).

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