It is a problem almost every teacher will face at some point, and for the unlucky few it will be a depressing daily challenge: how to engage hard-to-reach pupils who truant, misbehave or switch off during lessons.
The issue has recently been pushed up the educational agenda. The Westminster government's behaviour adviser, Charlie Taylor, has said that schools must do more to engage the sort of pupils who are "opting out" of lessons, and Ofsted is changing its inspections to focus more on these pupils.
In a 2008 survey, Ofsted defined disengaged pupils as those who displayed one or more of the following characteristics:
- They were regularly non-compliant but not aggressive or threatening, and caused repeated low-level disruptions.
- They were regularly disruptive, challenging or both, which led to repeated entries in the school's incident log, recurring fixed-term exclusions or both.
- They were absent for 20 per cent or more of the school sessions in the year.
- They were quiet, withdrawn and uninterested in most lessons.
Behaviour expert Professor Ken Reid says there are simple things teachers can do to improve engagement before teaching even begins, such as: greeting pupils as they enter the room and acknowledging them as individuals; having a strategic seating plan so they do no sit in friendship groups; and getting their attention at the start of the lesson with an eye-catching or interesting introduction to the topic.
However, sometimes the situation is so serious that a whole-school response is required.
When David Brunton became head of Earlham High in Norwich four years ago, he was faced with a situation he describes as "dire". The year before, the school had been put in special measures and had posted the fourth-worst GCSE results in England, with only 6 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-C grades including maths and English. Its attendance rate was 83 per cent; persistent absence was running at 23 per cent when the expectation was that it should be below 5 per cent.
"Every hour some 25 children were sent out of lessons for their behaviour. We had dedicated members of staff for them. Every day about 10 to 20 children would attend school but wouldn't go to lessons they just wandered around the corridors.
"And then there were those who didn't come in at all," says Mr Brunton.
Earlham High was about to undergo a big change anyway, moving to new buildings and becoming City Academy Norwich, but Mr Brunton knew he had to regain control. "The first thing was to make sure youngsters were where they were supposed to be," he says.
He used all available means to get pupils into school: "We used persuasion; we talked to the pupils and their parents about why they were disengaged. But where necessary that was backed up by legal processes."
Two administrators were hired to monitor attendance data and a senior member of staff was asked to oversee attendance. The academy developed robust systems to tackle poor behaviour and focus on teaching and learning, but a key ingredient was personalisation.
"Of course we talked to (pupils) about the value of education and all the things you would expect us to, and sometimes that switched a light on in a few of them," Mr Brunton says. "But for those it didn't, we had to make changes. For some pupils, we found that the normal provision doesn't work for them. We created a curriculum around the pupils that had relevance to them."
An early move that had a huge impact on engagement was arranging off-site courses to give pupils a change of environment and new opportunities.
Vocational lessons were arranged for all Year 10 and 11 (S3 and 4) pupils at City College Norwich, the academy's main sponsor.
"That was so popular we started to look at our own timetable and what we could do to improve our offer," Mr Brunton says. "We wanted to create a personalised curriculum that works for that child. Our thinking was not how can you make the school a success, but how can we make this place successful for you?"
The school started to offer pupils a range of alternative experiences, with 63 options to choose from, including chef skills and boxing fitness.
Mr Brunton knew that it was also important to engage parents and started running parenting programmes with local charitable groups.
"We do short-term exclusions of up to three days for particularly bad behaviour if other options have been exhausted, and we have a reintegration session when the pupil returns, in which we always involve the parents.
"It's about making parents understand we are on their side. We want to help their child and we don't want to take that punitive action if we can do something else to address the situation."
Changes were made to the classroom experience at City Academy Norwich to re-engage pupils who found it a turn-off. In some areas of the school, lessons are informal. While some pupils sit at desks, others sit on beanbags or sofas. Pupils are also encouraged to present their work in different ways, so instead of writing an essay, they may make a video or a presentation. The academy has embraced digital technologies and allows pupils to use their mobile phones as learning tools.
The changes have had a huge impact. Within two years the academy had nearly 90 per cent attendance; this year it is 93 per cent. The year before Mr Brunton arrived, 23 pupils were permanently excluded. In his first year in charge, the figure dropped to one. None has been permanently excluded since, although the punishment remains a possibility for the most serious offenders.
Mr Brunton's proudest boast is that pupil numbers have swelled, from 600 when he arrived to 800 this September. Three years ago only 82 pupils applied for Year 7 (P7, when pupils in England move up to secondary). This year 180 have applied and the school is full.
"For me, that proves that the community has regained its faith," Mr Brunton says.
Another school that has been praised for engaging disaffected pupils is Sandfields Comprehensive in Port Talbot, South Wales, which has what it calls a "school around the child" approach.
The school is in one of the most deprived areas of Wales and about 75 per cent of pupils enter Year 7 with reading ages below their chronological age.
And according to head Michael Gibbon, the effort to engage pupils begins at the front door.
"Some schools forget that the reception area is the first place people see," he says. "Our secretaries have a very friendly relationship with our pupils and their families . and that's a huge help in keeping them engaged with the school."
Sandfields has a comprehensive support network for pupils, including on- site youth workers, counsellors and social services staff, an after-school learning resource centre and one of the few secondary school nurture groups in Wales.
The school also has robust systems and procedures in place, including a database that lists every pupil's problems and needs, so that teachers know what support they may require.
"We work from the basis that we have to be everything to our pupils," says assistant head Sue Flavell, who is responsible for attendance and behaviour. "Sometimes learning can only start once a number of issues and obstacles have been overcome."
Tips on good practice
In 2008, Ofsted surveyed 29 secondaries, finding common features that engaged disaffected students, including:
- Staff shared a commitment to helping students succeed, which they expressed clearly to students and their families. The school ethos valued and respected the needs of individuals. The students felt part of the school.
- Robust monitoring of academic, personal and social progress, and collaboration with primaries and other services, meant students who were likely to become disaffected were identified early. They received support before and after they entered secondary school.
- Teaching assistants provided vital support, helping them to maintain interest and cope with crises, allowing teachers to focus on teaching the whole class.
- Pastoral support was managed by assigned support staff. They acted as the first point of contact and directed parents and carers to the appropriate member of staff if they could not deal with the issue themselves.
- Communication with students and families was very effective, ensuring they were fully involved in the process and had confidence in it. Students knew they were listened to and felt they could contribute to decisions about their future.
- Home-school liaison staff played a critical role.
- Specific support was very effective, such as temporary withdrawal from classes and training in life skills to help students change their attitudes and improve their learning.
- At key stage 4 (S34), a high-quality, flexible curriculum, involving a range of accredited training providers outside the school, was effective in engaging students more in their learning.
Classroom do's and dont's
In their book Tackling Behaviour in Your Primary School, Ken Reid and Nicola Morgan say a teacher's own behaviour has a major influence in the classroom. So teachers must be positive role models for pupils if they want to fully engage them in learning. Here are some do's and don'ts:
- Remain in control.
- Catch poor behaviour before it starts.
l Respect and acknowledge race, gender and culture.
- Be fair and consistent when issuing sanctions.
- Inform parents of positive achievements.
- Listen attentively and show interest.
- Look for the win-win solution.
- Evaluate what worked well.
- Disapprove of the behaviour, not the child.
- Ignore minor misdemeanours.
- Reward good behaviour.
- Teach the child to self- manage their behaviour.
- Lose control of the situation.
- Use sarcasm.
- Personalise a pupil's behaviour.
- Get angry.
- Raise your voice.
- Be uncaring and distant.
- Make threats or promises you cannot keep.
- Condemn the individual's character.
- Reprimand individuals in front of their peers.
- Make personal comments in front of the whole class instead, do this in one-to-one situations.