5th November 2004 at 00:00
How do you get behaviour right? It depends on your character, the character of your pupils, the nature of your school and the nature of the incident.

But there are common threads, ideas and solutions. In the Friday forum we're asking you to share your experiences. We're not telling you how to do it: you're telling us how you've managed a particular type of behaviour on a particular day. This week, pupils who swear. Strong language has become acceptable and young people, who tend to swear prolifically in conversation with each other, increasingly bring it into school. How do you deal with it? Andrew Booth, a leader in pastoral support at Balwearie high school, Kirkcaldy, describes how he supports his school's policy of zero tolerance.

Headteacher Mike Kent, LEA adviser Liz Henning, sixth-former Meg Shakesheff and psychiatrist Raj Persaud also comment. You can contribute by going to the behaviour chatroom at www.tes.co.ukbehaviour

When, in 1976, the Sex Pistols used the f-word during a television interview there was outrage. So much so that they were sacked by their record label, EMI. Common decency was under assault. These days, swearing provokes little more than mild warnings about the use of strong language.

Indeed, Hugh Grant made the f-word an act of upper class cool in the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Swearing has become normal, and young people, who tend to swear prolifically in their casual conversations with each other, increasingly bring it into school, where it becomes a behavioural issue as it so readily slips into abuse.

Deciding when and how to draw the line is a common and taxing conundrum.

Andrew Booth, 35 (pictured), who was previously a professional actor, teaches drama and is a principal teacher for guidance (pastoral support) at Balwearie high school, Kirkcaldy. Swearing has been an issue throughout his five years as a teacher, he says, because it constantly raises issues about the nature of language, power and respect.

He favours a relaxed atmosphere in his classes and is keen to promote self expression. He encourages students to write their own plays, but has to think long and hard about their readiness to use strings of obscenities in texts. "It is tough to strike the balance. If they are wanting to create pieces of drama that reflect the world they live in, then swearing might be appropriate and I am loath to censor their work. But I have to judge whether they're just trying it on. I will challenge them hard as to why they think they should use the f-word or any other form of swearing."

Although Mr Booth admits to "not being hung up about swearing personally", he supports Balwearie's policy of zero tolerance. But it's how he implements the policy that is crucial in his relationships with pupils, he says.

He recalls a top-year sixth-former in one of his drama classes who reacted with an expletive when reminded that he was about to be assessed for a piece of work for his advanced higher. The boy had forgotten and reacted with an "Oh fuck!" "It was a genuine reflex, a dawning moment of horrific realisation and he put his hand to his mouth as soon as he said it," says Mr Booth. "But everybody in that room was focused on the swearing. Part of me was feeling, 'This is a well-balanced pupil who respects other people and who has genuinely let a word slip'. But another part was thinking, 'I've got to address this because, if I let it go, this will be signal to the others that it's OK to use language like this'. In the end I said to him, 'I don't know whether I should be more upset about the swearing or the fact that you've not prepared for the assessment'. The telling-off came with a fillip of humour, but I'd made it clear that he'd overstepped the mark."

Andrew Booth came to teaching after 10 years struggling to make a living as an actor. He'd particularly enjoyed working with young people and so opted for teaching as a more fulfilling career. Balwearie high is his first post, and he's enjoyed it so much he's not looked elsewhere. The school, a successful 11-18 comprehensive, caters for a social mix of 1,750 pupils drawn from a large part of Kirkcaldy and smaller rural communities along the Firth of Forth coastline. Staff from the headteacher downwards make a point of getting to know the pupils, who are split for pastoral purposes into five "vertical" houses, each with a cross-section of ages and a team of "guidance" tutors. Mr Booth is leader of one of these teams and, although he believes staff must be firm and consistent on ill-discipline, he also believes they must retain a sense of perspective and avoid confrontation wherever possible. "I do challenge behaviour, but generally in a non-obtrusive way. You never know what's going on in a child's life, and I think confrontation is often unhelpful because it makes a pupil feel devalued."

He recalls another more recent occasion when a 13-year-old boy came to him complaining that an older girl had stormed out at the end of a class swearing, a string of f-words for all to hear, about her drama teacher. The boy had been shocked enough to report it, and for that reason alone Mr Booth felt he had to act on it. But he waited for an appropriate moment. "I knew the girl, I got on with her and knew that I was teaching her the next day, so I took her aside before the start of that lesson, presenting her with the facts but without making a big thing of it. She said she'd been unfairly treated by the teacher; I responded by saying that, no matter how she felt, the language was inappropriate and asked her what she should do to make amends. I put the ball in her court.

"She said she would apologise. I said I wanted her to apologise verbally because I believed that would also give her a chance to mend fences with the teacher, face to face. I also asked her to do a 'punishment exercise', part of whole-school policy, which required her to write out a set paragraph about the need for respect. She knew I wasn't going over the top, but it was important that she saw me going through these procedures as a signal of what is acceptable within school."

Even if he overhears swearing when walking past groups of children in conversation in the corridor or playground, Mr Booth will challenge it, not making a major fuss but having "a wee word". It's about constantly picking up on the "little things" to ensure the lid is kept on bigger behavioural problems. No pupil has ever sworn at him directly because, although pupils at Balwearie high are "characterful", they are, on the whole, well behaved and understand the need for respect. He also believes that his calm approach to behaviour helps to keep things on an even keel. "Over time I've learnt to step back, not take things personally, not get angry or raise my voice."

He also takes a lead from his headteacher, Gordon Mackenzie, who is "hands-on", creates a "very upbeat, relaxed atmosphere", is "very funny and extremely caring" about his pupils but always "clear-cut" on issues of behaviour. Mr Mackenzie, who received an OBE in 2001 for his services to secondary education, regards knowing his pupils as the most important part of his job; being out there on the corridor, at the school gate, down at the bus stop, keeping an eye. He is constantly stopping pupils to laugh and chat with them, checking up on their families, commending them on things they have done well, reinforcing positive behaviour with energy and humour but "drawing a clear line" about what is unacceptable.

Mr Mackenzie sat on the Scottish Executive's discipline task force, which produced the report, Better Behaviour, Better Learning, highlighting teachers' growing concerns about the issue of swearing. Swearing of any kind in school, he says, is totally unacceptable because it demonstrates a lack of respect. "The acid test as far as I am concerned is, 'Would I want my children to come to this school?' and if the answer is no, then this school is not good enough for any of the children here."

But he says it's not simply a case of telling pupils to stop swearing.

"It's always dangerous to tell pupils to do something without explaining why. Care has to underpin the whole fabric of the school. If you show pupils that you care about them, that instils a sense of value. Officials think I should be in my office thinking up strategies, but you have to give pupils the time of day, because that makes the job an awful lot easier.

There's no limit to what we as teachers can do for youngsters, but we have to sit down with them, find out what they are thinking."

If swearing is prevalent in a school, he believes it is indicative of other underlying problems. "Once schools start to let things slide on this front, then watch this space."

Friday magazine is offering every reader a free copy of Elaine Williams's TESsurvival guide, Managing Behaviour (worth pound;2.99). Simply collect eight of the 10 tokens that will be printed in Friday throughout our series. Details of how to obtain your copy will appear next week. You can find token seven on page 3

Next week: Disorganised boys

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