Hassle-free lunch is hard to find

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Patrick McDermott answers your leadership questions

As part of a drive to improve behaviour at our large inner-city school, we are considering whether to keep pupils on site at lunchtime. One reason is to stop them roaming the streets. Another is to avoid having to spend afternoons dealing with reports of incidents from members of the public.

What do you think about this, and can you give us any advice about improving behaviour generally?

It is all too easy for people to say that there is a correlation between social disadvantage and poor discipline, and that we should therefore expect poor discipline and behaviour in inner-city schools.

These schools, so this generalisation goes, have a high percentage of pupils on free school meals, a large proportion of pupils from one-parent homes, and many children who have come from a culture of no work.

Many such schools may have a significant number of pupils for whom English is an additional language. Their lives outside school are often affected by violence and a prevailing "wisdom" that suggests it is not "cool" to learn.

But there are as many inner-city schools that do not conform to this stereotype, and as many one-parent families that nurture good discipline and behaviour. How much of this applies to your school only you will know.

I wonder, though, what the attendance at your school is like in the afternoons. Some schools across the country have analysed their attendance figures and found that many pupils just do not bother to return to school for afternoon lessons if they are allowed to leave the premises at lunchtime.

These schools now keep their pupils on site throughout the lunch break, and have improved their attendance figures by doing so.

Being tough on attendance is a clear signal of the standards you expect, and switching to this new lunchtime arrangement will reinforce this message. But much more is needed than simply keeping pupils on site at lunchtime. Without order and discipline learning cannot take place. Order and purpose and the creation of a respectful and calm community are virtues that will do much to improve the school on many levels.

Clearly, a good headteacher backed by the leadership team is essential. But it is also vital that the school rules are understood by all the staff and pupils. And even this is not enough, as the rules have to be applied consistently and fully by everyone concerned. There is no room for mavericks or rogue departments in this respect.

Schools that have made positive headway in pupils' behaviour often list the following elements in their strategies for success:

* having clear systems of sanctions and rewards in place;

* making sure that the leadership team, year-team leaders and as many staff as possible are visible around the school at all times; and

* keeping pupils on the school site during lunch breaks.

If you are going to keep your pupils on site at lunchtime, make sure there are plenty of adults around to supervise. Remember that in this case, rather than dealing with complaints from members of the public after lunch, your afternoons are likely to be spent dealing with incidents that have occurred in school, and you will be no better off. You may care to invest in a range of lunchtime activities and channel pupils' energies into positive endeavours.

So, with careful management and supervision, keeping pupils on site at lunchtimes could help you to improve attendance and behaviour, but only if you work on all fronts to make respect a reality, and not just a platitude.

This requires relentless effort by everyone in the school community. Anne Robinson is not the only expert in identifying the weakest link: in matters of behaviour and discipline, pupils can be very adept too.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls' school in Bradford. He has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. l Do you have a leadership question? If so, email it to: susan.young@tes.co.uk

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