3rd July 2009 at 01:00

Problem Several Year 11-12 pupils smoke outside the school gates. They have been told not to, but there is no official policy in place. What sanctions would work?

There is no straightforward solution here. Pupils smoking outside the gates isn't good for the school's appearance and makes it look as though they don't take pride in their schooling. But if they are of legal age it's something that has to be negotiated rather than imposed. As a result, this problem has to be tackled on an individual basis, according to your school, the pupils and your relationship with them.

The law on schools' legal powers outside school premises can be interpreted as stringently or as loosely as you like. Guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families refers to section 89 (5) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which states that headteachers are allowed to control pupils' behaviour "to such an extent as is reasonable" so this very much depends on your definition of reasonable.

David Miller, winner of last year's Guardian award for secondary teacher of the year and English teacher at St Ninian's High School near Glasgow, says: "No school wants to see groups of pupils congregate at the school gates aimlessly smoking their lungs out. Not a good impression either for the local community or for younger pupils."

Instead of imposing strict sanctions, Mr Miller advises tackling this individually with pupils. "It all comes down to relationships. I would play on their sense of responsibility to the younger members of the school community," he says. "This may get the `yawn' treatment - although it shouldn't if the right teacher does it in the right voice."

It is hard to apply sanctions if there is no official school policy. Sue Allen, consultant with Vision Works educational consultancy, advises that you go to senior management with an idea for a smoking policy. "Some schools (that I have worked with) ask Year 11s not to smoke in uniform and the sixth form have to be a certain distance from the school," she says. "It isn't perfect and it's difficult to police, but having a policy means it can be followed and stops the school looking like a dive. It also means staff can refer to the policy when they come into contact with the smokers."

Ms Allen also suggests running a school campaign through tutor groups and assemblies to try to make the pupils think about their actions. "Target long-term issues that are raised by some of the pupils' behaviour and get them to think about the influence it has on younger pupils, the reputation of the school as well as some kind of anti-smoking or smoking awareness campaign," she says.

One classroom activity suggested by Mr Miller, is making adverts about smoking - one for and one against - using video facilities from the school or their own mobile phones. "The pupils could come up with slogans to put across their message and could create a mini-narrative advert or a series of emotive images," he says.

"They could also choose or create their own music score and present it at assemblies for all year groups. This may create a bit of a buzz in the school, and make the nicotine addicted pupils think twice about their habit."

Making it a whole-school issue is one way to make pupils think about their actions and take responsibility. However, Simon Ellis, senior lecturer in the Centre for Enabling Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University, makes a distinction between issuing sanctions as punishment and educating pupils about the perils of smoking.

"This type of approach would seem to combine a more educative dimension with the punitive element," he says. "There will undoubtedly be schools that have used these sorts of approaches successfully. However, schools would need to weigh up whether they feel the necessary learning is better done in a positive, constructive way rather than in a context where there is a punitive connotation.

"It is vital that the school is clear about the issue it is targeting and does not confuse a disciplinary matter with a health promotion issue."

Next week: Different approaches to discipline.

Related content:

Smoking ban assembly overview


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