Delivering the good

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Diana Hinds visits a primary in Cambridge that has been so successful in tackling pupils' misbehaviour it now shares its expertise and is visited by 180 trainee teachers every year

Thirteen years ago, children threw chairs around at Arbury primary school in Cambridge. Pupils were defiant. There was a lack of respect for others and for school buildings. A culture of hard work did not exist.

It sounds like the stuff of trainee teachers' nightmares. But if trainees at Arbury today come expecting to find challenging behaviour, they will be disappointed. Indeed, when trainees are asked, after a day at Arbury, what else they would like to have seen, "children misbehaving" is not an uncommon response.

"Of course, it would be good in some ways for trainees to see incidences of bad behaviour, but we can't lay that on," says headteacher Jane Rickell.

"Most of our children are well behaved because of the strategies we have put in place. Trainees need to look behind what they're seeing in the classroom to understand what the teachers are doing."

Turning around the behaviour of Arbury pupils has not been easy. The school has a highly mixed intake, with 30 per cent of pupils on the special needs register for difficulties ranging from communication difficulties to emotional and behavioural problems. A speech-and-language centre on the site accommodates 16 children with significant language disorders, who spend afternoons in the main school.

But the school has been so successful in its approach that it is now in a position to help others. Since January 2000, Arbury has been a training school specialising in behaviour management and inclusion, and 180 PGCE students from Homerton College, Cambridge, now visit every year in groups of 15 to 20 for a day-long sample of its strategies.

"There is no quick fix," says Jane Rickell, who began work with the staff on behaviour management when she arrived 13 years ago. A whole-school approach is central, as is the establishment of a clear structure - which, for Arbury, takes the form of a system of "golden rules" devised by pupils and posted in each classroom and around the school.

Teachers are encouraged always to "praise the positive" so that if all but one of your class are fidgeting and quarrelling on the carpet, you pick out for praise the one child who is sitting well.

Rewards need to be plentiful, but balanced by sanctions. Here, a system of golden time has been highly effective: a period on Friday morning when the children get access to the special contents of the golden time box - which might be play-dough for Year 1, gel pens for Year 3, karaoke for Year 6.

Children who have transgressed during the week lose five minutes or more of their golden time and have to sit and watch as their minutes are measured out by a sand-timer.

Arbury has also highlighted the expressive arts as a crucial area for building children's self-esteem and fostering good behaviour. Lesley Ford, expressive arts co-ordinator, runs a drama club, as well as a school choir that performs in the community.

"You mustn't compromise on quality," she insists. "Children develop reliance on one another when they're doing something good. Once you've established that trust, the behaviour follows: they want to behave because they're part of that team, and the team is behaving."

When trainees arrive for their day at Arbury, an introductory session with Jane Rickell and Ruth French, training school co-ordinator, gives them some pointers of what to look for. They then spend time in the classrooms, observing pupil behaviour and teaching style, joining in with activities where appropriate.

Emma Sadler, a trainee, has been observing a Year 6 maths lesson, where there are no problems with behaviour despite a range of ability from level 3 to 5.

"You can see the teacher anticipating all the time," she says. "When she is standing at the front, she is aware of all the children in the class and reacting to different children differently."

Another trainee, Laura Gorick, has had an equally calm experience in a mixed Year 1 and 2 class: "Everything the teacher said was really, really positive. I don't think she said anything negative, and all the children just wanted to please her."

In another class, however, a small boy has been observed sulking and refusing to participate after his teacher told him off for rubbing words off the blackboard. But even this potential difficulty has been smoothly handled by the teacher tactically ignoring the boy - who returns to the group, fully compliant, 10 minutes later.

"This was a potential confrontation that the teacher knew she didn't need," explains Ruth French. "A confrontation wouldn't have worked."

"The message we're giving is don't confront," says Jane Rickell. "In any confrontation there's going to be a loser - and that's not good for the pupil or the teacher."

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