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Discipline is essential. If a matter goes beyond the classroom, staff should feel supported and pupils should feel the response is fair, says Sean McPartlin

On hearing of my appointment as an assistant headteacher, my 14-year-old nephew, nodding sagely, remarked: "Oh aye, the guy who comes round the classes taking away the bad boys." It was an interesting take on management remits but, like all stereotyped comments, had some truth in it.

Reflections on management generally focus on the wider issues of ethos and systems. However, despite the grand vision, it is still the case that the average senior management member will find much of the day taken up by what can generally be classed as discipline.

Of course, systems and ethos are still relevant. Any school discipline policy must fit in with the school's ethos and have systems to ensure it is employed effectively and fairly across all pupils and staff. Individual departments and, to an extent, teachers will have their own methods of ensuring discipline and the emphasis may vary also, but overall there needs to be a consistency.

Whatever the system, there is a good chance that the disciplinary buck stops on the already overloaded desk of the assistant head with year group responsibilities.

Years ago, the head and depute would play a good copbad cop routine, in which the very mention of the depute's name (usually) was enough to make even the most recalcitrant third year quiver. Now, with a more enlightened approach brought to bear, the whole business of discipline has become more complex and more fraught, at least for those charged with enforcing it.

In a sense, a discipline system, and the individual responses of those whom it binds, reveals education at its most human. There are teachers who seem to have an in-built ability to control classes and get co-operation out of their pupils and others who struggle, even with support. Equally, all teachers know that anyone can have a nightmare lesson, or even week, where all ability and confidence seem to have been lost.

It is not always easy to spot why a pupil loses control, or how to remedy the problem. For major problems schools can access outside agencies, but surveys all show the type of indiscipline that most bothers staff is the drip, drip of low-level nonsense, as we might label it: forgotten pens and jotters, constant chat, missed homework and old-fashioned cheek.

Guidance staff rightly refuse to take on the mantle of disciplinarians for fear of the havoc it might cause in their pastoral role. For all that, their knowledge of the pupil makes their input vital in any disciplinary system.

Departments must be clear on the disciplinary referral system. Teachers have responsibility for general discipline in their classrooms and have a right to expect the support of their principal teacher. The department may call on management support if they feel it is appropriate and if other measures are not effective. A good working ethos should ensure that discussions with management requesting this type of support are viewed by all as examples of collaborative working, rather than a cry for help or a sign of weakness.

The interpersonal skills of the school manager are vital in this area. Staff must feel supported, pupils must feel the disciplinary response at this level is firm but fair, and parents need to know that the assistant head or depute is approachable but also committed to the ethos of the school and the best interests of all the pupils.

By the time a pupil is referred up to management level, the disciplinary problem is severe and often the wisdom of Solomon is required if the situation is to be remedied. With guidance support, the manager may be aware of reasons out of school for the pupil's misbehaviour, he may even discover that the teacher bears some responsibility for how things have developed, and, if professionally astute, will take this into account when dealing with the situation.

Whatever the causes of the indiscipline, a means has to be found of supporting the pupil, but also safeguarding the education of fellow pupils and allowing the teacher to get on with the job of teaching. It is a balancing act that is seldom easy and often downright impossible, depending on accurate information, parental and staff support and the experience to make sound judgments, often under pressure of time or political expectations.

Like so much else in a manager's remit, it is made easier by teamwork, a supportive ethos, and the trust that comes through a shared vision of the school's aims. And, sometimes, just sometimes, the ability to shout loudly across a crowded assembly hall.

Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, West Lothian

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