Scotland's new discipline tsar talks to Raymond Ross about national moves to improve behaviour in schools, while those involved in pilots for behaviour co-ordinators and restorative justice speak of their first-hand experiences
Every teacher knows horrific tales about discipline problems in the classroom and few have escaped first-hand experience of them. Yet despite rising statistics of violence and disruption, to be published next week, little has been done on a national scale to get a grip on the problem. Today sees the announcement of a national discipline tsar, whose job will be just that.
Shannon Bigham has 30 years of experience in education, 20 of them in the classroom. She sees her role of discipline development officer as a facilitator, developing collaboration between local authorities and the Executive.
With the scrapping of exclusion targets last year and the promotion of centrally-funded pilot schemes to explore discipline approaches such as restorative practices and behaviour co-ordinators in schools, the Executive is now trying to protect the rights of mainstream pupils and staff to learn and teach without disruption.
Mrs Bigham sees the new emphasis as a vote of confidence in teachers, schools and local authorities. "It sends a signal of trust to teachers, and schools and teachers will welcome it as a recognition of the hard work that goes on.
"I want to instil confidence in teaching staff and for them to see that we support their professional development.
"There is a lot of good work going on out there."
She believes discipline issues are no worse now than at the start of her career in the early 1970s, when teachers were faced with the combined effects of the raising of the school leaving age and the abolition of corporal punishment.
"I'm not a great believer in the truth of statistics. There's a raised awareness among teachers today about incidents and reporting them. Staff are more willing now to report both high and low level incidents. There's a culture of expectation to report, whereas in the past teachers were willing and expected to manage such incidents themselves as part of their job. I think it is the reporting that is going up rather than the number of incidents."
In her previous post, as a pupil support manager in East Lothian, extreme incidents were few and far between, Mrs Bigham says.
"Schools and local authorities are working hard towards developing support for young people with behavioural difficulties by looking at alternative curriculums, links with further education colleges and so forth. But the bottom line is that schools do remain in control of the situation. They remain caring and nurturing environments.
"What is a worry for teachers is the amount of low-level disruption. All the evidence from Better Behaviour, Better Learning (the discipline task force's report) suggests this is more of an issue than high-level disruption. Early intervention is the answer to this."
Mrs Bigham intends to adopt a hands-on approach to her job as discipline development officer, rather than be tied to a computer. She plans to be out and about "the majority of the time", visiting authorities and projects in schools and among voluntary organisations "with the emphasis on mainstream education".
She believes schools are more effective learning environments now than they were in the 1970s. "There is more pupil participation and pupil monitoring and there is more effective liaison with parents, which I feel is very important and which I'm seeking to support.
"Public opinion may have a partially negative image of teachers through the media. After all, circle time doesn't often make headlines. But you only have to experience school boards or parent teacher associations to see how parents support teachers.
"I think we probably take the quality of education in Scotland for granted and that the public have a more positive view of schools than the media promotes.
"My job will be to visit, to listen and to disseminate good practice and to celebrate success. It's about collaboration and communication.
"Effective communication means collaboration between authorities so that we are not always reinventing the wheel. It also means bringing the classroom closer to national initiatives and recognising that teachers do a fantastic job and are the creative thinkers we need to encourage and support."
Mrs Bigham will also talk to the eight teacher training university colleges about how the Scottish Executive Education Department can support the training of teachers to work with children with behavioural difficulties.
She welcomes initiatives such as behaviour co-ordinator courses as well as restorative practices which are being piloted in North Lanarkshire, Fife and Highland.
"All local authorities have been invited to take part in developing restorative practices. So far 23 have agreed but we are still at the stage of clarifying and exploring the approach with the pilot authorities.
"For 30 years my job has been, in one way or another, to support disaffected young people, those with behavioural difficulties. It's always been my focus. My role remains that of promoting positive behaviour," she says.
The Scottish Executive has invested pound;500,000 to help councils train behaviour co-ordinators in schools and implement what is called "staged intervention" to improve classroom behaviour.
East Ayrshire has led the way and will co-ordinate the training.
"The programme provides a support structure for staff and gives expertise to individuals in school - two per school - to help class teachers provide their own solutions," says Tom Williams, the principal educational psychologist in East Ayrshire.
"The co-ordinators are not chiefs but experienced teachers with street cred," says Dr Williams. "It's about trust and confidence on all sides."
James Hamilton Academy in Kilmarnock has been piloting the staged intervention scheme for 18 months. "It is our framework for intervention and it blends in with the school's positive behaviour programme: it does not impose," says headteacher Bill McGregor.
"It works against a background of strong support for staff. It is a mechanism for internal support."
The scheme focuses on low-level disruption and on changing the teacher's behaviour and indirectly pupil behaviour. The co-ordinators are careful not to become involved in higher stage behavioural problems, which are the remit of guidance staff and senior management.
The behaviour co-ordinator will observe in class and help the teacher develop strategies to improve the teaching and learning environment. "It could be some problem like the pupils continually getting out of their seats without permission," says behaviour co-ordinator Audrey Price.
"You identify specific behaviours to be addressed. The class teacher draws up a plan with you, then heshe implements it and six weeks later you return to observe."
The scheme is voluntary and confidential and seeking support from a co-ordinator is seen not as a sign of a failing teacher but as an indication of a good professional developing and sharpening their performance.
The school's two behaviour co-ordinators - Ms Price and Julie Muir - are both class teachers who underwent a five-day training course and then began by observing and advising each other.
"Experienced teachers, good teachers do come to see us," says Ms Muir.
"Having co-ordinators does not mean a school has major problems. It's about low-level disruption and support to encourage reflective practice."
The co-ordinators never intervene in a class situation. The class teacher always remains in control of the learning environment.
"Observing is a two-way process. It's an exchange of ideas," says Ms Muir.
"The co-ordinator learns so much. As an English teacher it gives me cross-curricular experience watching different class layouts with different approaches and resources," she says.
Mr McGregor believes the intervention strategy has had a positive, indirect effect on pupil behaviour but says it can be difficult to manage because the co-ordinators' classes need to be covered when they are observing.
"You need a confident senior management team to allow the co-ordinators to run their own show independently," he says, "and you need a strong positive behaviour framework for it to work. It won't replace a bad system."