Believe you can behave better

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
The head who drafted the national discipline strategy is putting theories into practice in his new secondary, reports Elizabeth Buie

Pep talks from the man who motivates David Beckham and Wayne Rooney.

Incentives such as free driving lessons and a day at a local health spa.

These all part of the package of rewards and sanctions at Larbert High. But they depend on how pupils behave.

The incentives are among a range of measures formulated by a working group of 40 members of staff, with input from pupils, to create the final framework of the school's Talent initiative.

Led by rector Neal McGowan, who has been in post for a year since moving from Banchory Academy, the new discipline framework draws heavily on the thinking that went into the discipline task group report and subsequent Better Behaviour - Better Learning action plan.

As secretary of the task group when he was previously headteacher at Gracemount High in Edinburgh, Mr McGowan is more familiar than most with the theory and practice behind discipline strategies - the sticks and the carrots that can improve behaviour and general school ethos.

However, while he has put some of the behaviour recommendations into practice in the past, the Talent initiative at Larbert High is the most structured and cohesive initiative he has ever undertaken. "I have been to a number of schools to speak about behaviour policies where you see the lists of rewards and sanctions and various strands of the behaviour policy - but they tend to be in isolation, without any coherence," Mr McGowan said.

"What we are trying to do here is to fundamentally build in a behaviour policy as an underpinning strand of the school. When Better Behaviour - Better Learning was published, one of the comments made was that there was nothing radical or different in this. For me, the message I try to give is that it is about getting a critical mass of a mind-set in a school."

Larbert High, Mr McGowan insists, is not a problem school, but it is a large school (a roll of 1,700 will potentially rise to 2,000 in the next five years). He believes that a change of culture is needed. Everyone should raise their expectations and underachievers should begin to fulfil their potential, a common theme across secondaries in Falkirk Council. "We have staff here, like all schools, who would say: 'We should not be putting up with nonsense from kids - there should be zero tolerance and the bad kids should be put out.' But schools with high exclusion rates are disengaging from their community," Mr McGowan said.

"At the moment, too many children - even well enough behaved children - are pretty disengaged from the education system. When I talk about the critical mass I am talking about the kids who engage positively with school and then the disengaged become an isolated minority."

The new policy kicked off last week with special assemblies for all year groups, addressed by Mr McGowan and Jon Reid, the depute rector, who has been closely involved in the new discipline strategy.

Mr McGowan told S5 and S6 pupils how fantastic they looked in their uniforms (stricter dress codes are being applied following wide consultation), and exhorted them to work hard this year. He recounted how, when he had spoken to senior pupils who had come back early to the school the previous week to reorganise timetables, about half of them had lamented: "I wish I had worked a bit harder last year."

Mr Reid unveiled the school's new behaviour policy, the Talent initiative, posing two key questions which he said underpinned the strategy:

* "Have you ever been in a class where you have been sitting there and trying to listen to what the teacher is trying to tell you, trying to take in what he is saying because it's quite complicated, but some Muppet at the back of the class is giving mouth to the teacher and he is stopping you from learning?"; and:

* "Have you ever been in a class and really worked hard, staying up till 10.30pm to finish an English essay, or had a really good shot at something - and the teacher didn't say very much to you? And you've thought, I put all that work into that but didn't get very much back for it?"

The initiative was about dealing "really quickly" with those people who stopped learning taking place in class, Mr Reid said. "We will be on the phone to parents and dealing with it quickly through an electronic system."

But the school would also be recognising and rewarding the talents of each and every pupil. The acronym Talent stood for:

* Treat people and your school with respect

* Attendance and punctuality are important

* Learning is your top priority

* Ensure you are ready to work and have the necessary equipment

* Nurture your potential through hard work

* Try your best at all times Each pupil starts the term with 100 Talent points. Teachers can add points against set criteria; if a pupil receives a referral, points are automatically deducted. Pupils will then be able to trade the points at the school's Talent shop for various "goodies". Cumulative totals are used to decide who can attend school functions and activity days at the end of term.

The school will also identify the "group of the month" - top class; top 30 boys; top 30 girls - for each year and give these pupils an additional reward, such as an evening's bowling, free driving lessons, a day at a local spa, or something similar. Backing has come from local businesses which support the school's drive to promote positive behaviour.

The first step towards promoting positive attitudes among pupils, however, was the engagement of Kerr Nicoll, a motivational expert whose clients include the England football team, Formula One driver David Coulthard and other sporting heroes, as well as a range of corporate clients.

Already familiar to a number of secondary schools across Scotland, Mr Nicoll tells pupils how he became the youngest nightclub manager in the UK; then, at the age of 27, was attacked, bound and gagged, doused with petrol and threatened by three robbers. He went on to become an expert in survival techniques before following in the footsteps of his father, Watt Nicoll, folk-singer and broadcaster turned motivational guru.

At the end of his hour-long presentation to pupils, he lights a candle and suggests that the power of their minds can extinguish the flame. When that does not work, he tells them: "If you want to achieve something in life, it is not enough to wish for something - you have to get off your backside and do something about it."

Talent spotting

Key aspects of the initiative include:

* Restructured school management consisting of headteacher, three deputes and reduced team of principal teachers (faculty heads) whose responsibilities include pastoral duties.

* Behaviour policy based on collegiate responsibility, consistent staff approach and philosophy of staged intervention.

* Launch consists of a series of standardised lessons delivered by all staff to pupils, a series of special assemblies, followed by a specially commissioned Talent film and a motivational address by Kerr Nicoll. This is backed up by a range of Talent merchandise such as mouse mats, key rings and glossy posters.

* Positive reward scheme.

* Links with local businesses to school's senior enterprise groups.

* An electronic referral system called On The Button (OTB), customised to the school's needs.

* An automated points system so that teachers can pick up on emerging patterns of behaviour and act quickly.

* Appointment of seven specially trained behaviour co-ordinators (BeCos) who have two days a week non-contact time to work on pupil conduct in a way that is more proactive than many other BeCos have been.

* An extensive programme of continuing professional development focusing on learning and teaching and behaviour management.

What the pupils think

Ryan Govan, S6

"It might not change all of the kids but it will make a difference"

Laura Sergeant, S6 "I think the points system will probably work for the younger pupils"

Peter Crosthwaite, S6 " I was one person who didn't wear proper shoes - but you can feel the difference today"

Jenny Webster, S6 "Kerr Nicoll was really good - he made me actually think, what do I want?"

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