Anger management drives down exclusions

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Chastened principal used speeding lesson to turn one of the worst suspension records nationally into the best

Getting a speeding ticket was one of the best things to happen to Armando Di-Finizio. The principal of Bristol Brunel Academy was given a choice after being caught on his three-wheeled scooter: either pay a Pounds 60 fine and get three points on his licence, or pay the charge and attend a speed-awareness course. He reluctantly chose the latter.

It was a decision that would unexpectedly transform the fortunes of his academy, which opened in September last year. Brunel operates in new buildings round the corner from its predecessor school, Speedwell Technology College, where every term 40 to 50 pupils were excluded - the highest exclusion rate in the second highest excluding ward in the country. It now has the lowest: zero.

"The driving course was patronising and obvious," said Mr Di-Finizio, "and I was angry that I had to go on it, but it made me think and I didn't speed again. Together with my deputy, Brigid Allen, it got me thinking about alternatives to traditional punishments."

To stop large numbers of young people roaming the streets, the academy replaced all fixed-term and permanent exclusions with after-school workshops.

Pupils who would have faced a one-day exclusion now go to their normal lessons by day, before attending three one-hour evening courses run by the senior management team, heads of year and learning mentors.

The workshops are based on existing courses in anger management, reducing anti-social behaviour and increasing respect for the environment.

The school also sends parents letters, stressing the importance of the workshops and hinting at further sanctions for non-attendance. To date, there has been almost 100 per cent attendance.

"The kids hate it at first because they don't get a day off to do what they want, but during the course they grudgingly accept it," Mr Di-Finizio said. "They build a relationship with the staff, who explain why we are taking this approach.

"Instead of getting a blemish on their school record, they see that we care, that we are trying to be inclusive. They learn why their behaviour is inappropriate, before attending a restorative meeting with the people who have been affected by their words or actions."

Parents do not have to take a day off work, pupils do not miss school, and teachers - who were initially wary of the scheme - say they have been amazed at how pupil behaviour has improved. Of the 80 pupils who have been on a course over the past year, only one or two have re-offended.

"It's the opposite of punitive punishment," Mr Di-Finizio says. "It's punishment with a purpose. It's all part of our ethos of working with the whole child. If they make a mistake, we don't push them away - we work with them."

An extended day, from 1pm to 5pm, has also helped some "high-end offenders", as have college courses three days a week for pupils who struggle to cope with mainstream school.

But the workshops have spearheaded the reduction in exclusions. Serious incidents are now so rare that the academy has started to use the workshops for minor misdemeanors, such as smoking, which would not normally have resulted in a suspension.

"We are not naive enough to think that we will never have a permanent exclusion, because we need to consider the safety of our pupils and teachers," adds Mr Di-Finizio. "But for a simple measure, which really doesn't involve that much investment, the workshops have been amazingly effective."

The scheme has been so successful that nearby Bristol City Academy is now planning to adopt it. In the past academic year, the Bristol city area had the second highest exclusion rate after Poole, with just over 9 per cent of all its pupils excluded - equivalent to 4,310 exclusions throughout the year.

Restorative justice, page 28.

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