Can't help it

12th November 2004 at 00:00
How do you get behaviour right? It depends on the nature of your school and the nature of the incident. But there are common threads, ideas and solutions. In the Friday forum we're asking you to share your experiences.

We're not telling you how to do it: you're telling us how you've managed a particular type of behaviour on a particular day. This week, Vaughan, the disorganised GCSE pupil, adept at excuses and playing one teacher off against another. Sue Langham, second deputy of the independent Millfield school, describes how discovering his love of cooking was the first step in tackling his behaviour. Headteacher Mike Kent, LEA adviser Liz Henning, sixth-former Meg Shakesheff and psychiatrist Raj Persaud also comment. You can contribute by going to the behaviour chatroom at

Vaughan was good at playing the fool. As he moved into full-blown adolescence he found he could always hold an audience with some minor act of tomfoolery. It was a welcome distraction from the demands of schooling and, in particular, from the major effort it would have taken to become organised. His woes were always somebody else's fault and it was so much easier to make excuses, to seek other pleasures, such as partying after lights out, than to face the fact that he was losing the plot, getting behind, unable to cope with the workload.

Vaughan, a boarding pupil at Millfield, the co-educational public school close to Glastonbury Tor, was becoming a major source of frustration to all his teachers. He consistently failed to hand in preps and was devious with it. He was creative in his economy with the truth; he failed to fill in his prep diary; was always losing his bag; was often late for lessons. He was consistently on report - required formally to report and record his presence at the start of every lesson - a measure that had little effect.

Vaughan was receiving extra support: he had an individualised plan for his dyslexia, but it was making no significant inroads into his general disorganisation. Across all of his subjects he was failing to make progress.

By the time he arrived at the door of Sue Langham, Millfield's second deputy, he had tried the patience of his subject tutors, senior tutor, head of year and houseparents, failing to respond to the gamut of Millfield's pastoral and curriculum support. Everybody was alert to his failings, but Vaughan seemed resistant to change.

Millfield, where fees are pound;21,000 a year, prides itself on its state-of-the-art facilities, particularly in sports and the arts, as well as the attention it can give to the needs of individual children. But Vaughan appeared impervious to the Millfield treatment. He was certainly not making the most of what the school had to offer, and led a fairly chaotic existence, drawn to general disruption. The next step would probably have been to suggest to Vaughan's parents, who were fully informed of the difficulties, that he should leave the school.

Ms Langham (pictured), who is responsible for timetabling and the curriculum and presides over a team that includes all heads of department, came to Millfield as a head of maths 11 years ago, but she had spent the previous 25 in the state sector, including a deputy headship in a large, tough secondary in the Midlands. The day she stops teaching, she says, will be the day she stops learning from pupils and staff.

She is upbeat about the potential of today's young people, championing their abilities to question and challenge the system, and is interested in what makes them tick, how to get the best out of them. "I studied psychology as a subsidiary to maths at university and I suppose I have always been interested to get into the mindset of the pupil, to look at concerns from their point of view while remaining firm and fair in my approach to discipline. Teaching is a two-way process," she says.

She is supported by Millfield's head, Pete Johnson. He is a passionate advocate of maximising opportunities for pupils of all abilities - there are more than 1,200 of them at Millfield - and that means taking on board their concerns, anxieties and difficulties, as well as their gifts. He believes teachers should never belittle the things that worry young people.

"What might seem a small matter to an adult may be a big problem to someone in their teens. And a boarding environment is an intense, full-on experience. We want children to get stuck in and do things, and they are busy here because busy pupils are more likely to be fulfilled. But that means we also have to take the problems extremely seriously."

Ms Langham was determined to get to the bottom of Vaughan's problems.

Underneath all the plausible and articulate excuses, his ability to play one teacher off against another, and his occasional extreme giddiness, she felt there was a boy crying out for help; that an underlying reason for the disorganisation and general naughtiness lay in his response to his curriculum.

"He was a good talker," says Ms Langham. "He always had a plausible reason for not doing his work - that he hadn't understood it, or he had a more pressing deadline for another teacher - and you always had to be one step ahead of him. His comprehension ran far ahead of his ability to commit things to paper, so he needed time and he needed structure."

Her approach, which lies at the heart of her teaching philosophy, was to deal with his weaknesses by playing to his strengths. Vaughan was good at maths, so she moved him up a set with a young male teacher she knew he would respond to. "Relationships are important to Vaughan and I wanted to give him the chance to have a good rapport with this teacher. We often underestimate the effect we can have on pupils. I always remember the teachers who put me down at school, so I always want to create the best chances of a positive relationship."

She worked out that maths provided a challenge he could respond to. "He needed subjects where he could progress in short stages, rather than ones that required lots of lateral thinking. He needed clear building blocks."

She also knew that he was good at computing, so she asked him to devise a spreadsheet that would improve the organisation of his workload. She was aware that Vaughan was struggling with business studies, which was a GCSE his father had encouraged him to take over his own preference for food technology. "He was spending an inordinate amount of time on that subject because he was struggling with it and because he knew his father wanted him to do it. But it was having a knock-on effect on his other work; it was the source of all his disruption."

Vaughan's housemaster and his wife had noticed that the boy liked cooking, and had given him opportunities to talk to the chef who came into the house to cook at the weekends. Vaughan liked the discipline of cooking, but he also liked the opportunities for creativity. Ms Langham says he liked to be able "to chuck things in when he was cooking; he liked to experiment with ingredients". She felt his enthusiasm for the subject might carry him through his other difficulties.

Switching subjects at this late stage, almost halfway through a GCSE course, was a risk, especially for someone in trouble for being disorganised, but she believed he would respond to the change if he accepted responsibility for it and she could persuade his parents to support the proposal.

She made a deal with Vaughan: he could swap business studies for food technology if he devised a timetable over the Easter holidays for managing the workload - which he duly did. "He was so thrilled that we had allowed him to swap, even at this late stage, that we believed he could do it. The change made a huge difference. By the end of the year he was making progress across all of his subjects. He made huge personal strides."

Ms Langham did not imagine for one moment that a pupil who had come so unstuck could get back on track with a single change of subject and a few pep talks. Tackling his disorganisation took weeks of seeing him every day.

"He was the sort of child who found it difficult to get up in the morning and getting together what he needed for the day. He was always rushing for the bus that took him from his house to the main school campus. So I started seeing him first thing every day. I would get him to empty his bag and show me what he had organised for the day and what preps he had done.

"I started setting him short-term organisational targets, writing down on a single sheet of paper, rather than in his diary, what he had to do for the next day. In the end he started doing it for himself because he didn't want to be seeing me each day. I was firm and consistent; that is always my approach. I didn't let him get away with anything, but I made him see what was in it for him in the long term. I made him see that he had something to offer. I think he respected that."

Ms Langham recalls the first day she took up a post as deputy head in her 2,000-strong Midlands school and had to deal with widespread vandalism in the fifth-form block where, among other things, a group of girls had trashed the toilets. "I made full use of all the school's sanctions - detention, suspension and all that - but I also made those girls see that they were doing themselves down. If their toilets were trashed, it was they who would suffer. We got them to redecorate, to take responsibility for their own facilities. That would always be my way."

The behaviour she finds most difficult to handle is pupils showing disrespect for, or laughing at, other pupils. "No one should ever be made to feel small; that's against my philosophy of building self-worth. We are all part of a group, a community, and we all have a part to play in it no matter what. I'm a team player, with pupils as well as staff."

* Friday magazine is offering every reader a free copy of Elaine Williams's TESsurvival guide, Managing Behaviour (worth pound;2.99). Simply collect eight of the 10 tokens that will be printed in Friday throughout our series. Token eight is on page 3 and an application form on page 16

Next week: Violence

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