Big Brother can be sensitive

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Can a computer make pupils behave better? Carolyn O'Grady looks at a project which monitors behaviour - and helps teachers improve it. ``Sit down Jones, and tell me why you can't seem to control your bullying tendencies when you see a chocolate bar in the hands of a pupil smaller than yourself?" "What me? Must be some mistake Sir."

"No mistake, Jones. This computer report lists two staff and three student witnesses who say otherwise. What's more, the database shows that you and a motley collection of friends have been involved in three similar incidents in the past month. Now give me one good reason why I shouldn't key in some detention for you, along with a letter to your parents telling them about your behaviour."

Grange Hill 2001? Not yet, but it is a possible scenario at Cockburn High School, part of the Leeds Attendance Project, which uses information technology to monitor and act on students' behaviour.

It is the sort of swift, preventive and informed response that many headteachers would envy. What makes it possible is that, since October, Cockburn has been using a computer database that allows staff to create individual pupil records and monitor behaviour.

It sounds big brotherish, but, says Mr Richardson, used sensitively the database can "help the school be proactive, and enable us to see if we are responding consistently on a day-to-day basis".

Without such a system, policies to improve behaviour are usually implemented on the basis of gut feelings. So teachers suspect that a very small minority of pupils are involved in disruptive incidents, but they have no proof. They feel that there are a large number of aggressive incidents in a particular corner of the playground, but aren't certain enough to divert supervisors. They guess that a particular child is being bullied, but have not got enough information - and the child isn't telling.

The Leeds Attendance Project involves a multi-disciplinary team of teachers, educational psychologists, youth workers, welfare officers and computer analysts. GEST-funded since September l990, the database is available free of charge to Leeds schools, and can be bought by schools outside the area.

Incidents are initially logged by teachers on a form soon after they occur. The type of episode recorded is decided by the school, but a typical list would include assault, bullying, disruption, verbal abuse, fighting, smoking and being found with illicit substances.

Also logged is the time, location, action taken (ranging from, say, a ticking off through detention to fixed-time exclusion) and any additional information, such as the name of the victim.

Later this information is fed into the database. "Members of staff pick up the processing involved quickly, but schools do have to allow some time for the administration of the system," says Peter Costa, the project co-ordinator.

With in-put information, the database can perform hundreds of tasks. Behavioural trends can be investigated: for example, schools can find the total number of incidents within a period of time, and ask for breakdowns by, for example, type, age, gender and ethnicity.

They can see where incidents are apt to occur. Are children absconding in large numbers from a particular lesson? Is there more truancy on, say, Monday?

Last year Cockburn High School changed its assembly from the morning to the afternoon. Within a few weeks the database revealed an unexpected result: a significant number of pupils tended to truant in the morning. The reason was that they got a less fierce telling off from their form teachers first thing in the morning than from class teachers later in the day. Cockburn shifted assembly back to the morning.

Of course the database has to be sensitively used, says Mr Richardson. Teachers' definitions of incidents are unavoidably subjective: what might be verbal abuse to one might be friendly banter to another. Some teachers may not report incidents because they are frightened of drawing attention to themselves. Others may be very abrasive and report every tiny infringement. In-service training can go some way to offset these differences, but, says Mr Richardson, "You must know your teachers."

In this case, he adds, it can be a helpful tool in staff development. That a particular member of staff is generating many incidents of a certain type is a finding that could be used in staff development. Do particular ethnic groups appear to be disproportionately involved in some types of incident? Staff might look at whether this has to do with their own cultural misapprehensions.

There is also the issue of confidentiality. Not all teachers have access to all the database information. There are various levels of access. Some staff can only input information, for example.

Records can also be accessed by pupils' names. Which pupils are generating most reports and of what type? One school thought it had a problem with a year group, but found a small group of pupils caused most of the complaints.

Is it possible to investigate the kinds of incident in which a particular pupil is involved? Do they occur in a particular location or lesson? Cockburn found many incidents took place on the way to and from school, so it set up a system of volunteers to accompany pupils along the road.

Cross-referencing is an important feature of the system. It can, for example, tell you whether a pupil who is the main protagonist in one incident is involved in many other episodes, and it makes systematic bullying easier to detect.

Exclusions are something the database will, it is hoped, reduce, but the business of exclusion is administratively complex and an obvious application for a computer. Built into the database is help with the information gathering and letter writing involved.

In the case of fixed-term exclusions the database will calculate the date of return and the number of days pupils have been excluded in the current term. It will take the school through the processes of fixed and permanent exclusions and allow the creation of standard letters to parents and authorities. It will also find and print out the history of misbehaviour.

Some seeing this process in operation have jumped to the conclusion that the computer is excluding children, says Mr Costa. "It is not a process that, once set in motion, takes on a life of its own. All it does is generate the paperwork when the school wants it. Decisions are made by the school," he says.

Many schools have found the system's ability to print out histories of misbehaviour particularly useful when discussing a pupil with parents, counsellors or others. Schools find that parents, faced with the neatly documented list of incidents, are more willing to accept the situation and enter into a dialogue to improve it.

The database is constantly evolving. Under consideration is a facility that will enable a school to see immediately whether a pupil with many reported incidents tends to be involved in more serious violations such as assault or vandalism, or less serious events, such as homework or uniform infringements. At present all are given equal weighting.

The unit is also aware that the database presents only one side of the picture. Cockburn High School and other schools would like to see rewards as well as incidents of misbehaviour on the system so as to get a fuller picture of a child's school career. Then, as well as pointing to misdemeanours when talking to pupils or their parents, a teacher would be able to refer to praiseworthy behaviour.

This is some way off, but it illustrates the potential of a system which, sensitively used, already appears to be a useful tool in helping schools improve behaviour. "An excellent early detector," is how one teacher described it. "It allows schools to intervene sooner in situations where children require additional support or expert help."

The Behaviour Database is a Windows application for PC compatible computers. Pupils and staff records can be imported from a school's SIMS system to cut out re-entry of existing data. A single user version: Pounds 560; network: Pounds 720. The price includes training for two people at Bramley Grange College, telephone support for a year (renewable) and upgrades. Leeds Attendance Project, Bramley Grange College, Thorner Lane, Thorner, Leeds LS14 3DW. Tel: 0113 273 7716

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