Should the innocent be punished?

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Robin Precey Answers your leadership questions

About 10 of the 25 pupils in a Year 7 class are very disruptive. This class has a poor reputation, and whole-class punishments are being proposed. Some pupils and their parents feel punishment for someone else's behaviour goes against the discipline code (although it does not explicitly mention whole-class situations). One parent has threatened to withdraw their child from the school. What should we do?

Unfortunately the situation you describe is not unusual today. The days when the vast majority of children entered secondary education with enthusiasm and good behaviour have gone. Schools cannot stand back while classes are disrupted by individuals andor groups of pupils.

It is well worth preparing the ground, having a thought-through strategy that fits in with your discipline policy rather than a series of reactive responses to disruption. We understand more about the psychology of pupil behaviour now and there are signs that we are getting better at managing it in our schools. It is a big issue, especially in key stage 3, as highlighted by the Office for Standards in Education. There is now some good advice around. The Department for Education and Skills pack on behaviour and attendance in KS3 gives a useful overview of a school's possible responses to situations, including the one you mention (see It contains some excellent practical advice.

Local authorities are appointing behaviour management consultants. Find out who yours is, get them in and seek their advice and support.

Ultimately, however, you will need to address the issue. Avoid labelling groups, whether it be the whole class or the disruptive pupils as this strategy will sour relationships and cause pupils to live down to our expectations. However, sometimes a short-life class report monitoring general behaviour can be useful if the critical mass can put acceptable peer pressure on the deviant minority. But this can go horribly wrong and accentuate bad behaviour if managed poorly.

It is unjust to punish the innocent. Identify the unacceptable behaviour and who is displaying it. Someone else observing the worst lessons and behaviour between lessons may help. Often groups (of adults and children) can be divided up by different types of behaviour displayed - such as those who conform, those who deviate and the followers.

Once the main difficult children have been fairly identified they need to be dealt with individually. Even in your class with 10 disruptive pupils I expect the number leading the poor behaviour is smaller. A range of responses may follow, most of which, I'm afraid, do involve additional resources or the diversion of existing resources from elsewhere. The response will depend on the sorts of poor behaviour and when it is displayed. For example, an inability to work with other pupils in drama may need withdrawal and extra help on developing social skills. Schools are using trained teacher assistants and youth workers as well as teachers in the special needs department for these sorts of support now. The strategies clearly need to fit into your discipline policy and, for example, your staged behaviour management system.

Third, root your responses in learning and keep expectations high. Teachers need to stay positive about those who are succeeding and reward them with appropriate praise. Good behaviour is learned as much as poor behaviour.

Those who are receiving extra help to bring them up to your standards need to see what you want and why and how to do it. They also need to see a way back into the group (if withdrawn) and the re-entry needs to be skilfully managed. If all of your efforts fail and a child is learning little that is positive in your school and stopping others learning, then exclusion is a legitimate option.

Ensure that all the staff acts as one on this. Children, rightly, get indignant and confused if they are blamed and punished for something they did not do. There needs to be consistency among all staff and the tough golden rule of us treating our pupils as we would expect to be treated needs to be applied. This will need good communication and a commitment to make the measures work.

Keep all parentscarers informed. Be up-front about what you are doing.

Parents of the conforming children will be relieved and supportive - but again communications should avoid negative labelling of some of the class.

Some of the parentscarers of the others may be able to support you in altering their child's behaviour. We have to work from the premise that all parentscarers want their children to succeed in school and want to play a part in this. They may need strong guidance as to what this means. Keeping them informed will also mean that any later, firmer disciplinary sanctions will not come as a shock. Communication needs to be about good news as well as the bad. Record and celebrate the "wins" but remember that there will probably be setbacks with some pupils.

We can only do our best in the circumstances. Schools are about us adults learning as well as the children. We are getting better at this. We also know that when - after determined, consistent and intelligent measures - we do succeed the satisfaction for us is great. It can actually re-affirm why we went into the job in the first place.

Robin Precey has been in education for 31 years, the past 12 as head of Seaford Head community college in East Sussex. He is also consultant on the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme. Do you have a school leadership or management question? Contact Susan Young at The TES,

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