Contracts seem to be in vogue at the moment. From September, parents will be asked to agree with school policies on issues including behaviour, attendance and uniform, under plans unveiled by the Government last year. The move aims to set out parents' responsibilities for the first time and make sure that they understand the consequences if their children step out of line.
But some teachers have already introduced their own versions as a way of improving pupil behaviour. Although this may seem like an extreme measure, many teachers swear by class contracts. According to Kurt Wastell*, who began his teaching career last year at a secondary in Richmond, the first he heard of them was in conversation with a more experienced colleague.
"It sounded like an ingenious strategy at first," he remembers. "But when I tried to draw up a behaviour contract with my tutor group at the beginning of my second term, it turned out to be more difficult than I had thought. They seemed a bit baffled by the idea and had no interest in complying with my rules. I think I wasn't well enough prepared."
A variation put forward on The TES forums is a class report. One NQT says her mentor has suggested displaying a report on every lesson, with columns for good and bad behaviour. Posters suggested limiting the bad behaviour column to two or three areas where you want to see behaviour improve. One teacher says she uses this with her most disruptive class, so they can see she is being fair with rewards and sanctions.
The contract should be written in collaboration with the pupils, says Alex Brandram, a retired head of year and former induction tutor from Greenwich, southeast London. He says that contracts should name specific behaviours to be changed, state the rewards that can be gained for successful compliance and the consequences should the child not adhere to the behaviour described in the contract.
"The behaviour contract provides pupils with structure and self-management. From my experience, it is often an effective form of behaviour modification," says Mr Brandram. "However, there are minor problems with them: the focus is on controlling pupils' behaviour rather than helping the children to make wise choices."
Paul Dix of Pivotal Education, an education consultancy, agrees that drawing up a contract with the entire class is not always the way forward. "Giving all pupils a contract to sign at the beginning of the year will do little to improve behaviour," says Mr Dix. "However, contracts can work to support individuals whose behaviour has become unacceptable."
According to Mr Dix, successful contracts are negotiated and tailored: they connect behaviour at school with consequences at home, are used for a limited period only and have clear milestones for success. "Contracting behaviour with pupils is as much about the conversation as it is the paperwork," he says.
If you want to establish a contract with a pupil, prepare well for the meeting. As an NQT, you would want to have an experienced colleague supporting you through the process. Talk to the parents and explain what you would like to do and how you see it working.
Keep the focus on creating an agreement that improves behaviour, describing the sort of behaviour that is needed for success. "If the contract is used as a stick to beat the pupil into submission it will surely be broken quickly," says Mr Dix. "Once the contract is established focus on catching the pupil following it rather than waiting for it to be challenged."
The contract will take time to take effect - a little patience goes a long way. Be sure to let the pupil know that you share their goals and that you will help them achieve them.
* Name has been changed
- Draw up the contract in collaboration with the pupils.
- Ask the pupils to make suggestions for reinforcement and consequence for failure to comply.
- Name specific behaviours to be changed.
- Prepare well for the meeting - as an NQT you would want to have an experienced colleague supporting you through the process.
- Talk to the parents and explain what you would like to do and how you see it working.
- Simply impose the rules on pupils - involve them and they will be more likely to comply.
Next week: Mean girl.