How my school came to love Big Brother

13th March 2015 at 00:00
An `Orwellian' behaviour strategy angered parents and put 300 pupils a day in detention. But it worked, says this headteacher

Soon after my appointment as headteacher at Highbury Grove School in London, I realised that behaviour was an area I'd need to explore. There was a feeling among staff that introducing approaches based on restorative justice hadn't really worked. The perception was that it had created a need for constant negotiation, enacted inconsistently across the school because of a lack of clarity around the rules and the consequences of breaking them. Several teachers who left last summer even cited behaviour as a reason. It wasn't terrible in general, but some classes were just too hard to teach. Clearly, I needed to act.

In September, we launched a new strategy inspired by a "behaviour for learning" scheme devised at Ninestiles School in Birmingham. We started with two half-day sessions where we discussed behaviour issues and set up a staff working party to develop a new set of rules and consequences.

The basic principle of the approach is that there should be clear rules for behaviour in class and around the school, with a set of coded warnings and consequences. For example, arriving late to a lesson results in an automatic one-hour detention. The same applies to wearing uniform incorrectly. So students are making a choice: to meet the standards or to sit a detention.

Surveillance culture

In class, graded warnings give students time to adapt their behaviour to the different phases of each lesson, which means that teachers can manage expectations of talking, following instructions and remaining on task. Disruptive behaviour leads to removal from class with an automatic full day in our isolation room the next day. It's a tough sanction, but students know that if they choose to be defiant there will be consequences.

After 15 weeks, the impact has been clear. Uniform standards and punctuality improved dramatically almost overnight: students run into school now instead of dawdling and 99 per cent have perfect uniform. Teachers are extremely positive, too. They have a high level of control and have the levers to improve behaviour without needing to raise their voices.

There are still plenty of issues to iron out - teacher judgement remains a key factor, so inevitably there are inconsistencies. Implementing any system requires talking about the spirit as well as the letter of the rules; getting this right takes time.

The reaction from students and parents has been more mixed. Almost everyone acknowledges that behaviour has improved but the system initially seemed very harsh to some. We had a huge number of students in detention to begin with - more than 300 every day in the first week. We're now down to about 80, with disruption in lessons still the main trigger.

The early weeks were tough. Parents complained about the "Orwellian" detentions. I was told: "We didn't choose to send our child to a grammar school" (as if high standards shouldn't be expected here), and even that I had ruined the school.

Behaviour revolution

However, a few weeks after the launch we held a well-attended parents' forum where different perspectives were aired. It was very interesting to hear the range of opinions. I tried to take any heat out of things by sharing some of the criticisms at the start - for example, that it was draconian to sit in silence for an hour during the detention - and by acknowledging some of our early communication problems.

Beyond that it was clear that there were opposing views. Some parents shared concerns that the system risked making the school seem too focused on discipline and not enough on rewards, praise and the positive community atmosphere they loved. Others urged me not to change or soften the strategy; it was working and we needed to give it more time.

We've decided to undertake termly reviews so that we can tweak the approach in response to the behaviour standards we've achieved and the feedback we receive. We've started trials allowing students to read during detentions if they want to - it's not compulsory as we don't want reading to be seen as punitive. So far about 20 per cent of students take up the option and the atmosphere in detentions has improved without removing the deterrent effect.

The greatest challenge is with the 20-30 students who find the standards difficult to meet. Some receive multiple detentions; others spend too much time in isolation. Despite working closely with our learning support and pastoral teams, we're reaching the end of the road with a small handful. Our behaviour support centre allows us to create a buffer zone where students are outside of mainstream lessons but not permanently excluded, which could have damaging consequences for them.

Our priority now is to find alternative provision for these students so they can learn in an environment where they won't disrupt the learning of others. It's the sharp end of a system that has significant positive benefits for the vast majority because the boundaries are enforced.

Standards continue to improve; behaviour is not yet impeccable but we're well on the way. More and more students are prepared to admit that they like it; the school is still a happy, friendly, supportive place - but now they can get on with learning and teachers can get on with teaching in a way that wasn't always possible before. It's a long journey and this is just the beginning.

Tom Sherrington is headteacher of Highbury Grove School in North London

What else?

Use these posters to create clear classroom guidelines.

bit.lyClassRulePosters

Signing a contract will encourage pupils to stick to the rules.

bit.lyClassContractSheet

A visual reminder of rules, rights and responsibilities.

bit.lyRulesRightsResponsibilities

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