13th March 2009 at 00:00
Problem: My classroom display has been defaced, moustaches drawn on faces, graffiti scrawled across the artwork. What should I do?

These vandals are displaying a clear lack of respect - for you, their environment and their classmates. It is crucial, therefore, that any solution fosters and maintains a school culture of respect.

Remember that pupils are much more likely to respect people and places they actually like. "You don't damage something that you value," says Andrew Suter of Eco-Schools, a schools sustainability programme. "And pupils are more likely to value something if they've been involved in decisions about it."

He suggests teachers talk to pupils about what they like and don't like about the school - in this case focusing on the displays. Encourage pupils to make suggestions about their classrooms' appearance and, with teacher guidance, give them responsibility for creating something new.

"Even if you can't get everyone involved, a pupil is much less likely to damage work that they know their mate has created and put up as part of a whole-class or school effort," says Mr Suter. "It sounds simple, but teachers find it hard to relinquish control and increase pupil involvement. We find that once they loosen the reins, pupils are far less likely to be disruptive or engage in any sort of vandalism."

Ian Mikardo High School in Tower Hamlets has already allowed its decision- making to move into the hands of its pupils - 35 boys, all excluded from other schools and all with severe social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. They routinely tear down displays, but Claire Lillis, the headteacher, focuses on getting them back up as quickly as possible and avoids being too punitive. "It can be a bit like painting the Forth Bridge," she laughs. "We put them up, and they keep pulling them down."

But the school is a triumph. Ms Lillis was the fourth head in nine months when she took over the then special measures school in 2002. Four years later, it was judged outstanding.

The transformation began with the environment. "It was so drab, unwelcoming and unfriendly," she says. "We all respond to our environment. If it's unpleasant, pupils are more likely to lash out."

Ms Lillis promptly painted the walls vibrant and calming colours, junked the old furniture and introduced a hairdressing salon, recording studio and Apple Mac suite. She also ran a Luscious Loo competition, with all the boys researching, budgeting and designing their own toilets. Now, instead of being havens for bullying, graffiti and smoking, the elaborately decorated toilets are a source of pride.

What little criminal damage there is at the school becomes a police matter. But any damage to the displays is treated as a mistake that pupils can learn from. "I'll talk to the boys about what's happened and explain why we don't want or deserve shabby displays," says Ms Lillis. "Then I'll say that if someone has a problem with them, I need to know so that I can do something about it."

That is usually enough for the culprits to step forward. Amazingly, pupils also hand in weapons when Ms Lillis asks them to. "We don't present the punishment," she says. "It's about getting to the root cause of why they did it." The perpetrators and staff then put up new displays together. It's not easy, but we've proved it can work. The learning process can take years, but we've seen real breakthroughs," she says.

But no single teacher can go it alone, warns Ms Lillis. Respect for the environment must run in parallel with whole-school behaviour policies. If all teachers are consistently good role models and respond to misbehaviour, pupils are more likely to know where they stand. "If you don't have a common ethos throughout the school then it will feel like you're swimming against the tide. Together, you're stronger," she says

Next week: Swearing

DO .

. Create a whole-school ethos about respecting the environment and each other.

. Involve pupils in decision-making about their environment.

. Get high-quality displays back up quickly - a blank wall is more likely to attract graffiti.


. Ignore it - vandalism can be a slippery slope into more serious crimes.

. Immediately impose sanctions - pupils learn more from collaborative approaches.

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