Last year, I was waiting in a school corridor when the teacher on patrol with a walkie-talkie arrived to pick up two girls who had been sent out of their classroom. When he arrived, the class teacher stepped out into the corridor as well. The patrolling colleague asked him to explain what had happened, but before he got a chance to reply one of the girls piped up: "He can't fucking teach for a fucking toffee that's what fucking happened."
Teachers who face such language day in, day out are likely to feel angry, ineffectual and unsupported. Even in schools where behaviour is good, there may be regular ejections from particular classrooms or departments. These usually involve the same group of students, and the incidents are enraging for all concerned. These situations are most likely to happen in schools that serve socially stressed areas and where staff turnover is high.
Is there an answer to all this? Between 2005 and 2006, HMI carried out a programme of repeated visits to a group of schools where behaviour was unsatisfactory. The verdict gives some useful pointers for improvement.
"Schools can reduce low-level disruptive behaviour in a reasonably short time using simple strategies, if everyone uses them. The most successful schools did not deal with behaviour in isolation, but tackled it as part of a wider school-improvement strategy. They set out to motivate students and raise achievement by improving teaching, making learning more enjoyable and giving wider choices in the curriculum."
There are two key points here. First, schools need a methodical and consistent approach to behaviour management. The tools and techniques required are spelled out in great detail in programmes such as behaviour for learning and Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning).
The second point is that behaviour is linked to teaching and learning and therefore to school improvement as a whole.
In my experience, where behaviour needs to be turned around as matter of urgency, the priority steps are:
- Audit staff and a sample of students to find out what is happening.
- Use the audit to ensure that the senior leadership team and extended leadership team are united in their approach to developing good relationships in the school and to tackling problem areas.
- Review the behaviour policy: in particular, ensure that the policy focuses on teaching, modelling and rewarding good behaviour rather than focusing on, and punishing, poor behaviour.
- Provide training for staff that is based on evidence from existing good practice in the school - it is even better if staff can explain to others what works well in their classroom.
- Teach students the school's expectations in a thorough and systematic way and repeat it every half term. No student should ever be more than half a term away from a review of each teacher's expectations.
- Develop and expand student voice so that staff and students work together to develop a mutually respectful school ethos.
- Ensure that data management is effective so that staff have an accurate view of student needs and the school has an accurate picture of the implementation of its behaviour policy.
- Ensure that behaviour expectations are linked to learning expectations. It is improved learning in the classroom that will make the central difference to relationships in the school.
- Keep at it relentlessly, do not let up.
Relentless attention to the issue is crucial. A simple policy such as regularly sending home positive notes and making upbeat phone calls to parents requires commitment and organisation. Unless it is done systematically and regularly, it degenerates into a bribe system for the challenging students and everyone feels dissatisfied.
The account of a school I worked in recently (see panel) shows how a consistent behaviour policy can bring about a transformation.
This story contains a number of familiar features. The staff were united around a programme of action, a considerable amount of effort was put into explaining and teaching the plan, the students were involved in the operation of the policy and it was implemented relentlessly.
In cases where behaviour is turned around in this way, there is usually a member of the management team who makes it their personal mission. They are easy to recognise: they seem to be everywhere on the corridor; they work in a firm but fair way with the most challenging students; and they are able to talk to individual staff members about their handling of classes or individual students in a non-threatening and helpful way.
The same applies outside the classroom and across the school grounds, especially around the toilets, which are often a hotspot for bullying.
First, we needed to collect the information. We recently carried out an audit of Year 7 students in an apparently inclusive and pleasant school and discovered that they were frightened to use the (rather unattractive) toilets because they were afraid of the Year 10s who commandeered them for smoking. Once the information is there, the answer is obvious: include the toilet in duty patrols and start talking with the Year 10 students.
Another common issue is late arrival at classes after lunchtime and breaks. This usually involves a dreary ritual of ringing bells and then going around shouting at the students who do not respond to them. This goes on day after day. The problem is that youngsters treat the school bell in the same way that adults treat the alarm clock in the morning. It is a signal not to get up for another ten minutes. A better alternative is to switch off the bells and train a cohort of staff and students to let students know verbally when the breaks are over. The same principle applies between lessons. When the bell is switched off there is no need for the familiar cry, "Back in your seat, the bell is for me, not for you!"
When a school faces continuous problems
In most schools it is possible to solve most behaviour problems most of the time. However, there is a big "but" here. Modern teaching is a highly professional operation. Many teachers arrive early, stay late for meetings, prepare lessons several evenings a week and usually at least a half a day at the weekend. As as already noted, they have to include and plan for a wide range of students. Many schools, particularly those in socially stressed areas, are working at or near the edge of their capacity. Schools that manage well do so because of the unity of their staff and the leadership of their management team.
In schools that have continual problems, a range of familiar difficulties are usually apparent. It is difficult to recruit new staff, management posts are vacant, or some managers have become so ground down that they are unable to assess data and troubleshoot problem areas effectively.
Sometimes the management team is divided. Perhaps there is a new head who has not won the loyalty of the management team. Perhaps the management team cannot agree on what approach to take on apparently trivial matters such as enforcing rules about hoodies. Or the team is aware that there is chaos in a particular department but does not know how to deal with it. Or the management team collectively believes that teaching staff send too many students out and are unwilling to solve problems at classroom level.
The same issues can be replicated at department level. Sometimes a whole staff has taken the view that the only way to deal with challenging children is to increase the severity of the sanction system, and it has stopped looking for ways to build alliances with young people.
The first step in solving these problems is for a school staff - particularly the management team - to have a close look at themselves. The best way to do this is usually through an audit process. It is rare to see a school turn round without a rigorous self-review at senior level. This may involve outside partners such as the school improvement partner or the local authority. Step two is to involve the whole staff and then the student body in the same process.
On the day before the end of the Easter break, all the staff came into school along with an equal number of students: 360 people gathered in the school gym. During the day, groups of students and staff discussed how to make the school fairer and happier. The day had a huge impact on staff- student relations and this was not simply on account of what had been discussed. Students noticed that staff had taken the time and trouble to come in and listen to their views. The students were proud that they had come in. They also enjoyed the family atmosphere; both groups got to know each other better.
The most obvious change in schools in the past 20 years has been a dramatic improvement in teaching. The new generation of teachers is much better trained than any previous one and their committed focus on learning relationships in the classroom has had a profound impact. When teaching improves, behaviour improves. Pupils are usually quick to spot it and they will remark on it in interviews.
"The lessons are more interesting and they give us more to do. It is not so boring as it used to be."
In school improvement, the issue of behaviour quickly gives way to the issue of learning. However, the introduction and implementation of a clear and effective behaviour policy makes the school-improvement journey much easier.
- `Training Teachers in Behaviour Management' by John Bayley, Lynda Haddock and Nick Peacey is published by SENJIT. www.jbayley.co.uk
- Related article: Behaviour now - The classroom - How good is discipline in schools today?
`I'm amazed at the difference; I haven't seen a mobile phone this term! We can teach again'
A classroom teacher at a school in the South East describes how she and her colleagues transformed their pupils' behaviour.
The behaviour in our school was awful. Children come from very difficult and stressed backgrounds, and many have no parental control at home. Last term there were lots of teenagers roaming the corridors during lessons being openly abusive to adults who told them to go back to their classrooms.
In lessons it was difficult to teach. Students would constantly talk under and shout out, and it was common for them to use mobile phones during the lesson to send texts to their friends.
We got a new headteacher and the first thing she did was to ensure that senior staff regularly patrolled the corridors. They were gradually able to assert their authority by a combination of talking to the students, exclusions, phone calls home and placing children in an exclusion room.
The next step was to devise a proper behaviour plan. We had several staff meetings to decide on the plan, and then we spent six weeks teaching it to the students.
We held year assemblies and class assemblies. We went into great detail. For example, students were told it was OK to have a mobile phone in school, but it had to be out of sight and switched off during lessons. If a member of staff saw a mobile phone it would be confiscated and returned at the end of the day. If a student refused to surrender their mobile phone, they would go straight to the headteacher.
We made a great impact by getting the office staff and some of the teaching assistants to explain parts of the plan so that the children in the school knew that everyone wanted them to do well. We also got older children to teach parts of the plan. In addition, we had meetings with particular groups of children and explained the working of the plan to them. We implemented the plan at the beginning of the term and I have been amazed at the difference in behaviour in the classrooms. I have not seen a mobile phone this term! I would never have believed it was possible. We can teach again.
Of course, we have done some other things as well, such as giving concentrated support to the children who have difficulty with their reading. But it was that detailed teaching of the behaviour plan that allowed us to get control of our school again.