Corridors of power

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Disruptive behaviour is the curse of the modern classroom. It drives out teachers and stifles achievement. So what's the solution? As the Government's behaviour task force delivers its report, Wendy Wallace visits a school where care and correction go hand in hand

When Trevor Gardner takes assembly, there is absolute silence from the children sitting in front of him. But while this senior teacher closes his eyes to say a prayer - "Dear Lord, help us to be winners not quitters.

Because we know that winners never quit and quitters never win. Amen" - other members of staff in the hall keep their eyes open. In the constant struggle to uphold high standards of behaviour at this once unruly school, teachers can never quit.

Hillcrest school and community college in Netherton, Dudley, serves steep streets of semi-detached and terraced houses that stand as reminders to the Black Country's industrial past. The mines and ironworks that, according to Elihu Burritt, American consul to Birmingham in the 1860s, once turned the land "black by day and red by night", are celebrated in a local museum. But unemployment is high in Netherton these days, especially among men. Few parents have experience of higher education, and many children come from troubled homes. And the school roll, once exclusively white, now has 25 per cent ethnic minority students, of whom 90 per cent are Muslims of Pakistani origin.

In contrast to the chaotic home lives of some young people here, Hillcrest is a tightly ordered environment. In the carpeted corridors, where prefects keep a watchful eye, pupils are energetic but controlled. "Teachers talk and listen to the students," says head girl Rushda Joomun. "We're not forced to respect them; it's our choice."

Poor behaviour in schools remains high on the political agenda, and has even made it on to our television schedules with the Channel 4 series The Unteachables. Unruly behaviour is the main factor driving staff out of challenging schools, the IPPR think-tank confirmed earlier this year, and in May, the Government convened a panel of a dozen teachers and heads, led by Sir Alan Steer of Nine Kings high school in Essex, to pull together views on good practice. The group is expected to issue its first report today.

A member of the behaviour task force, Dame Maureen Brennan, head of Hillcrest, admits that keeping order at her own school is a "continual challenge", and she has firm views on how it can best be achieved. When she arrived in September 2000, having been deputy head at Great Barr school in Birmingham, Hillcrest had been in special measures for two years. Behaviour was terrible - chairs were frequently thrown out of upstairs windows - and attendance was low, at 88 per cent, with more than 3 per cent of absences unauthorised. Results were worse: that year just 17 per cent of GCSE candidates achieved five A*-Cs; the local authority appeared to have little idea of how to address the situation, and the school roll had fallen to 640.

By the time the school emerged from special measures in 2003, attitudes and behaviour had been "transformed to a very high standard", according to Ofsted. Today, the roll is up by more than one third to 863 and this year's GCSE score was 34 per cent.

Dame Maureen makes no apologies for the old-fashioned mix of care and strict discipline that operates at her school. Communication is direct, rules clear and the staff steely in their determination that the troublesome minority should not disrupt the education of the majority.

"Some children have very rarely been made to face the consequences of their actions, and don't see themselves as spoiling the chances of others," says Dame Maureen. "It is an issue in some schools that staff are not talking very directly with children and consequently children are not understanding them."

She enforces the uniform of white shirt, tie and blazer, bans make-up and jewellery, and doesn't allow students off the premises at lunchtime. "They don't need to be 35-year-olds," she says. Despite the strict enforcement of the rules, relationships between staff and students are warm. Teachers even apply a ratio, aiming to issue 80 per cent praise and only 20 per cent criticism. "Deep down, they believe that you're on their side," says deputy head Lin Westwood, who came with Dame Maureen from Great Barr.

Before children's behaviour could be tackled at Hillcrest, staffing issues had to be addressed. Some left voluntarily when Dame Maureen arrived, others were encouraged to do so; new teachers were recruited and the existing core of "brilliant staff" re-energised. "The issue for us was managing staff and pupil behaviour; it is difficult to separate them," says Dame Maureen. "If half the staff are not permanent, it is much more difficult to get consensus about what is and is not acceptable."

Over two training days, staff agreed standards and strategies covering everything from minor infringements to gross defiance and physical aggression. "You have to move to a complete sharing of values," says Dame Maureen. "The head can't just say, 'today we're going to do this'. You have to have everyone, all the time, reinforcing and supporting. And you can't do that with an itinerant staff."

With standards set, two deputy heads with responsibility for inclusion, Lin Westwood and Shelley Skidmore, are highly visible enforcers. "We are around the school like a rash," is how Lin Westwood puts it. In a Year 11 science class, where a number of boys have been persistently misbehaving this term, they are Shakespearian in their scorn. "Play fighting and out of your chair too much," Shelley Skidmore reads from the notes, in a tone of incredulity.

Lin Westwood tells one boy that he is a thief: he is stealing time from other students, and damaging not only his own prospects but those of his friends. "You're the size of a man, but your behaviour is that of a child."

Five others get similar treatment.

It is uncomfortable to see teenagers shamed and shouted at in front of their peers, but those who publicly misbehave must be held publicly accountable, says Lin Westwood. "We use demonstrative correction. We express our dissatisfaction, walk up and down, wave our arms around. We're immovable in terms of the standards we're trying to create for children."

As with the teachers and pupils, Hillcrest parents have had to accept new standards of behaviour. None can come into school without an appointment; "Stormin' Normans" are not tolerated. The school has introduced a system of taping phone calls, confronting abusive, threatening parents with their behaviour, and always having a note-taker present in interviews with parents. Dame Maureen is concerned to keep staff, as well as children, safe.

Creating a disciplined school cuts down on staff turnover. ICT teacher Rakesh Patel, 25, joined the school just over a year ago on the graduate teacher programme and is now in his NQT year. Having a set of clear ground rules makes his life easier, he says. "It is drummed into them that they have to have five stripes of the tie showing. So they start fiddling with their ties if they even see a teacher." When he had trouble stopping a Year 9 class talking, he felt able to say so and the problem was sorted out by heads of houses. "They try to make you first of all believe in yourself. If you are confident, you can put your hand up in briefing and say, 'I'm having a problem'."

Dame Maureen does not believe every child is suitable for mainstream school, or that every school is suitable for every child. Families are told in advance that expectations here are high; last year, three students were permanently excluded. Despite offering plenty of encouragement and support, the head admits that they still struggle with some pupils.

External support is inadequate, however. Hillcrest receives six hours a term from an educational psychologist (but buys in more) and one hour a week from an education social worker; this in a school where around 35 per cent of pupils are on free school meals. Dame Maureen is currently advertising for a full-time social worker and would like an on-site police officer.

Staff do their best to plug the gaps themselves. The leadership team treat children's nits, offer shower facilities in what was once the caretaker's house, and sort out hygiene issues. "How can you ignore what is staring you in the face?" says Dame Maureen, who has a son of her own and is described by a fellow head as having "a heart like a lion".

There are no generic solutions to behaviour management. "You have to soak up the dynamics of the school you're in, the environment, the social situation," says Lin Westwood. As the school year gets under way and children calm down after the summer holiday, there is a new drive to tackle the low-level disruptive behaviour that still constrains achievement.

Dame Maureen does not believe that being empowered to issue Asbos would be helpful. As a member of the behaviour task force she has been to Downing Street, and was taken aback by the responsiveness of the Prime Minister.

"He sat, he listened. He genuinely wanted to hear the reality of what's happening, what's working, what could be done."

Good behaviour in school, she says, is a "precious gift. It is everyone believing the same thing and doing the same thing. It is day in, day out, hard work, and has to be done by everybody."

Dame Maureen's behaviour tips

* Get rid of bells. They only add to noise in the school, and to everyone moving around at the same time.

* Meet and greet youngsters as they enter the classroom. It means you are setting the standards before they come into your lesson.

* Have a seating plan for every lesson, subtly asserting that this is your area. For challenging classes, introduce a boy, girl, boy, girl arrangement.

* Deal with low-level disruption - the scraping of chairs and tapping of pens - by going to have a quiet word with the child, rather than shouting from the front of the class. Make it personal: "I'm sure you don't want to leave the classroom..."

* Smile at children, to show you like them. Children would rather work with smilers than miseries.

* Keep up the pace in lessons. It provides less opportunity for disruption.

* Walk around the classroom. Teach from the back and sides of the roomI

* Remember to reward the child who always behaves, always tries. Otherwise you are teaching that the only way to get attention is to misbehave.

* Ask yourself: why should this class behave in my lesson? Would I like my child to be taught in this way?

* Insist on children bringing their own bags to school for carrying books and equipment. If they do not, give them a Mothercare bag or something they would not want to be seen with.

* Children must see staff in the corridor. If staff avoid the corridors, there will be problems.

* Watch the small things and you can very often prevent the big things.

Behaviour is best modified before anything happens.

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