The kids are in charge

4th April 2003 at 01:00
One Berkshire school has restored order by handing power to pupils, reports Biddy Passmore

Pupils at Garth Hill technology college in Bracknell Forest run their own classrooms these days.

The visitor knocking on a classroom door is likely to have it opened with a smile by the door manager, a pupil who will decide if it is worth interrupting the teacher.

And a delayed teacher no longer holds up the start of a lesson. Pupils quietly get on with a "starter activity" written up on the whiteboard, while a book manager gets out books. Another pupil may put on classical music to help them settle.

When the teacher enters, a simple "non-verbal signal" (a raised hand) is usually enough to get pupils' attention.

Between lessons, pupil corridor managers bravely sit and ask bigger and older pupils not to run or drop litter.

This remarkable environment has been created by a new behaviour programme - Consistency Management and Co-operative Discipline - imported to the Berkshire school from Texas. Briefly, it works by giving pupils more responsibility for managing their own learning.

When Stan Turner, the principal, came to Garth Hill two years ago he knew that behaviour was the key to transforming the school. He requested an inspection by the Office for Standards in Education which confirmed his opinion.

"The school has never been in special measures but it was bubbling just around the serious weaknesses level," he said. "There was a lot of aggro, with kids not learning and very high staff turnover." Middle-class parents responded by keeping their children out.

When Bracknell Forest education authority, on the advice of academics from Nottingham University, suggested the programme, he realised its potential.

A presentation to the school by Jerry Steinberg, its charismatic inventor, and a visit to some reborn Houston schools confirmed this.

The programme, introduced last September, has dovetailed neatly with the new key stage 3 initiative, Mr Turner says. Just like those the Government advocates, lessons come in three parts - "starter activity," the main body of the lesson and a plenary or "exit" summing-up.

Consistency is crucial. Kay Robinson, head of PSHE, said: "When kids come to secondary school, they are all over the place. Instead of one teacher, they've got 12 or 14. If all teachers use the same system, it helps."

Using the programme seems to make the school more like a primary in other ways, too. Corridors and classrooms are bright with displays of work. These include "exit tickets" where pupils summarise on paper what they learned that day (a great help with writing, say staff).

Internal and fixed-term exclusions for disruptive behaviour have fallen massively and attendance has broken through the 90 per cent barrier, said Mr Turner.

Allison Fletcher, assistant director of education at Bracknell Forest, mentions other improvements. "You no longer have to jump out of the way in the corridors or wade through the litter," she said.

Now the school is spreading the message to parents and local primaries.

Bracknell Forest plans to extend the scheme to other, more challenging, secondaries.

The only snag seems to be cost. The three-year introductory programme will cost some pound;200,000 in fees to Houston University - for materials, training and evaluation. So far, the Government has contributed half of the first year's cost and is watching with interest.

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