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Script that rights bad behaviour

Douglas Blane talks to teachers at Oban High who have practised exactly what to say when a pupil breaks school rules

Oban High depute headteacher and physics teacher Ken Moncrieff believes that anyone who claims to have solved the discipline problem in their school does not know what is really going on there.

This may sound like a counsel of despair but is in fact the opposite. "Any systematic approach you adopt chips away at whatever size your problem is," Mr Moncrieff says. "It doesn't cure it because you are dealing with human beings.

"So, if we have got rid of, say, three-quarters of our problem, our next step is to get rid of three-quarters of what's left. You keep chipping away, with more and more kids staying on board all the time."

Although Mr Moncrieff and Maggie Clark, his principal teacher of learning and teaching, advocate an incremental approach to tackling bad behaviour and don't believe in quick fixes, they have both been amazed by the almost magical transformation wrought by some of the techniques they have adopted in the past couple of years.

Discipline at Oban High now has several components, such as a radio-equipped duty rector who can be summoned at a moment's notice. But the core of the system is a technique called assertive discipline, an American approach adapted for this country by Behaviour Management. This organisation - in the person of consultant Geoff Moss - trained senior staff at Oban High two years ago. Since then, says Mr Moncrieff, "we have become prophets in our own land".

Staff throughout the school now know and use the basic tenets of assertive discipline. These say that children should be taught good behaviour, just as they are taught Newton's laws and French grammar. Behaviour rules should be simple and clear. Complying or not is the child's choice: the former brings rewards while the latter reaps punishment.

Statements to a young person should be assertive rather than aggressive, emotive or insulting. Scenarios can be rehearsed, and scripts for potentially disruptive situations can be learned by teachers.

"A lot of this was new to me, and I have a fair bit of experience of different discipline systems," says Ms Clark. "The idea of rehearsing scripts and scenarios is incredibly powerful for classroom teachers."

The scripts are useful because what teachers say in the heat of the moment often can make things worse. "For example," says Mr Moncrieff. "if you say 'How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?' you're invariably going to get a numerical answer and right away you've got confrontation.

"The recommended script would be: 'We are all working on this exercise and I need you to be doing it, too.' " The effects of regarding good behaviour as a skill to be learned and taught can be measured in several ways, as Mr Moncrieff and Ms Clark explained during a workshop at the recent Ethos Network Conference. Oban High's level 5 SQA results have risen from 33 per cent to 42 per cent in the two years the assertive discipline system has been operating at the school.

"In our rewards system star pupils get a trip to Strathclyde Park," says Mr Moncrieff. "At the moment I'm looking at buses for 470 pupils. That's not bad for a school roll of 1,060. And I deliberately set the threshold high compared to the previous year."

However, it is inevitable that there remains a hard core of pupils for whom this first level of behaviour education does not work. Though their numbers are small, these children have a wholly disproportionate impact on school life, sapping the morale of teachers and damaging the learning of other pupils.

Yet even these pupils can be reached and their behaviour improved, says Ms Clark. She recently attended training run by Mr Moss on dealing with difficult students and has since invited him to deliver the workshop to the whole school.

"All the basic techniques of assertive discipline remain but you supplement them with new scripts and scenarios for really difficult kids. The idea is to get across three simple messages: I am not going away. I want you to succeed. What happens next is your choice," she says.

"Most of these youngsters have lost all trust in adults because they have been badly treated by them. So it takes time and effort to build relationships, which is the absolute key. But they already take up loads of our time anyway, in confrontation and disruption.

"I've been amazed by how well this approach works. I just wish I'd been taught it ages ago." course text, Succeeding with Difficult Students, by Lee and Marlene Canter, is available online

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