Building blocks to good conduct

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Sandy Peterson writes to Education Minister Jack McConnell to warn about misguided and discredited behaviour fixes

Dear Jack,I hear that you are seeking solutions to the discipline problems in Scottish schools. No doubt you will hear many complaints about the behaviour of pupils, and some about the behaviour of teachers.

My complaint is about neither pupils nor teachers: it is directed at the local authority education officials who are responsible for finding and developing strategies. I want to warn you about them before you consult them. They will doubtless be keen to advise you; ignorance is seldom accompanied by modesty.

They'll recommend that you shop around, because that is what they do. Like a bad parent, unwilling and unable to tackle the behaviour issues at home, they go shopping for toys to bribe or distract. They find shelves stacked and salesmen smiling, pushing "positive behaviour" games, action men for drugs and bullying, "methods" and "techniques" with famous names attached, diets, sedatives and stimulants to calm and control and courses promising one-day one-off one-dimensional fixes.

Let me be fair. These could have value as the decorative building blocks of a behaviour structure with solid foundations. However, thrown on the wasteland that is local education authority behaviour policy, they are useless.

You will also be offered second-hand goods, behaviour policies discredited by experience. In perverse self-justification, education officials will even recommend strategies which have failed in their areas: sin bins, deliberately degrading and non-educational, satisfy only the desire to punish.

Off-site reintegration units seem like a good idea - take a pupil out, fix him and put him back - but statistics disprove the trite notion and common sense confirms that a youngster will not leave close relationships and personal attention to return to cold anonymity.

Behaviour contracts signed by parents trapped between a demanding child and demanding school have value only as disclaimers of responsibility. Behaviour contracts signed by disturbed youngsters do not even merit discussion.

Auxiliary staff, under-trained and underpaid, are a shame on those who use them to do their dirty work.

Work experience, which is so effective when used correctly, is an embarrassment when it asks one busy employer to do what 15 professionals can't.

Home teaching is the final concession of total defeat, made worse by being justified as a tactical withdrawal in the interests of the child.

Group work, with middle class cult status, causes as many problems as it avoids. In the wrong hands, it gives illusions of progress while consolidating failure.

Off-site units are denied their chance to help the right pupils by being a dump for those the local authority can't think what to do with otherwise.

Activities such as outdoor education, indoor games and excursions are useful as additions but ineffective as substitutes. Pupils' problems need to be tackled where they occur, in their schools, homes and communities.

Local education officials will avoid telling you the painful truth because it doesn't suit their strategic or economic purposes to admit the truth which would enable schools to improve behaviour.

I do understand their difficulty. When I'm asked how schools should tackle bad behaviour I'm aware that my reply maes eyes wander and expressions lose interest. That is because I can't give it a snappy acronym or put it in a shiny box or present it in a two-hour song and dance routine or market it as a CD-Rom.

I have to admit that the task is a daunting and arduous one, with the schools themselves doing most of the work. The only justification for all this trouble is that it brings measurable success.

Don't take my word for it. Ask the schools which have patiently constructed a comprehensive behaviour system. They were open to ideas and experiences from outside, but they knew that salvation lay in establishing their own solid and permanent structures.

By definition, a customised behaviour policy will fit only the school which creates it: however, schools which take on this task do reach some general conclusions. It has to be a whole school exercise. The work may be led by the management team, though it is probably better given to a representative group of staff.

The vital element is the consultation and involvement of all staff and pupils. This requires endless patience, listening to ideas both revolutionary and reactionary, testing each new strategy for its practicality. The result will be a system which reduces referral at all stages, including a reduction in exclusion from school.

The system starts in the classroom. Teachers respond positively to a "deal" which challenges them to improve their ability to manage behaviour and gives in return an instantly responsive system of support.

It establishes alternatives to the mainstream. All schools remove pupils from classes: good schools remove them to a hard working, caring, therapeutic facility. The trick is to establish "removal" as a natural and necessary tactic to ensure the appropriate learning environment for all pupils and to stop it being a destructive confrontation between an angry teacher and contemptuous pupil.

It requires tight teamwork and effective casework practice. An honest look at the work done on difficult pupils by management, guidance and behaviour support teams will usually reveal a well-meant but chaotic series of fraught encounters. Replace this with a systematic referral process to a behaviour team which creates detailed programmes to cover all parts of a pupil's life and you will get pupils with achievable targets and staff with satisfaction from carrying out tasks which clear purposes and practical outcomes.

Support this with external resources. Off-site provision is vital because not all pupils can be taught in mainstream schools at all times. It can also be, for some pupils, the right education. As the ultimate resource in a carefully graded provision, effective off-site units complete the structure.

It is important to realise that these are only some examples of what may come out of a process whose strength lies in the painstaking detail of plans, programmes, structures and systems.

You will have remarked that there is nothing new. That is a vital truth. Through many struggles, failures and experiences workers have carved out effective behaviour strategies. We do know what makes young people behave responsibly: we just can't do the same for our bosses, who refuse to listen or learn.

Yours sincerely, Sandy Peterson Sandy Peterson was head of Wester Hailes Education Centre behaviour unit, Edinburgh, and is now a consultant on behaviour management

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