At a time when the media are full of apparently intractable-discipline problems in schools, Tynecastle High in Edinburgh can report that, since introducing a new discipline system two years ago, pupil behaviour has dramatically improved. Even at peak problem periods, the number of discipline referrals by staff on our "on call" system has dropped by more than half.
Pupils have to follow a code of five simple rules and are rewarded for good work, effort and enthusiasm by a certificate called a positive referral. These "possies," as they are commonly called by pupils, are filled in on a regular basis by the subject teacher. During weekly assemblies, the heads of each year group distribute the certificates as well as handing out verbal praise to the successful recipients. Each form is produced in triplicate and the pupil gets the top copy to take away. The second copy is filed in the guidance folder while the third copy is retained by the teacher who awarded the positive referral.
Even pupils who fail to adhere to the code are anxious to make amends and work towards a "possie" in the future. At the end of each term, staff are asked to select three different pupils from each of their teaching groups to receive a merit at the end of the session. This approach allows pupils to work hard and with enthusiasm to receive a reward for their efforts. Those who receive a large number of merits in a year are put forward for a certificate of distinction.
Collective rewards can be gained by classes for good attendance, the prompt return of forms and smart appearance. A class can earn a free breakfast in the canteen or a trip out of school. This form of praise encourages co-operation and team-work.
Since this system of assertive discipline originated in the United States, I decided to monitor the approach at first hand when I paid a visit to East Albemarle elementary school in North Carolina. Although this is a primary, the whole region or county adopts a common code which is published in the parents' handbook for every educational establishment. Public awareness of this positive educational philosophy is reinforced on a regular basis through articles in the local newspaper. Visitors to the school can read of individual achievements, which are posted up on a regular basis in the foyer of the school.
Every nine weeks, the pupils results are monitored in every subject. Those pupils who achieve excellent grades gain the high honour roll and those who gain good grades get the honour roll. These results are again published in the local newspaper.
In addition to the essential equipment that pupils need every day, such as pens, pencils and erasers, they are encouraged to bring a good attitude. It is considered to be of vital importance in the learning process.
Teachers reward the pupils with stickers that praise high standards and improvements on their previous performance. Collective rewards in the form of points may be cashed in for treats where a whole class goes out for lunch with their tutor. In the US, there are teacher-appreciation shops which stock a whole range of stickers and certificates. Pupils are asked to appreciate and respect the efforts that teachers put in to making their learning a meaningful experience. In these stores, you can buy cards and small gifts to hand to the teachers at the end of term.
Parents are even invited to join their children for meals, to ensure good eating habits and maintain an acceptable standard of manners at the lunch table. In the parents' handbook, there is a list of 20 suggestions about how a parent or guardian can help their offspring to make progress.
The responsibility for children having a positive attitude to school is placed firmly on the shoulders of the adults in the home. For example: "Guide your child to better movie-going. Select radio and TV programmes which will give him (sic) worthwhile information as well as entertainment. Keep your child well and rested. A child who has stayed up late to watch television shows the effect the next day in his school work." Or: "See that your child has good habits of attendance. When he is absent from school, he misses his work and may not be able to keep up with the class".
The final comment on advice to parents sums up the importance of their responsibility: "Show a real interest in school. The parents' attitude is usually the child's. You and the teacher are partners in the important job of teaching your child. An interested, relaxed, helpful parent is a most valuable co-worker and you are the partners we need".
Two years on, Tynecastle is looking ahead to reinforcing and improving its existing positive discipline system. There is no doubt that rewards encourage pupils through competitiveness and the result is a striving for achievements that will last well into the millennium.
Angela Blacklock-Brown teaches modern languages at Tynecastle High.