Tackling trouble at the source;School Management

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Behaviour policies in schools need to be fully revised, but in-house solutions actually offer the best hope for pupils, argues consultant Sandy Peterson

The chaos caused by difficult pupils is matched by the confusion caused by those who work with them. Across the country, education managers adopt behaviour strategies from the cynical to the crackpot. A trip from one local authority to its neighbour can be a journey from one behaviour policy to its opposite.

Behaviour support teachers, pupil contracts, sin bins and off-the-shelf packages can all make useful contributions to the education of difficult youngsters. But none can stand alone as a way of supporting them or changing their behaviour. Finding a solution requires investigation and revision of our total behaviour provision.

The classroom is the place to begin. As teachers struggle to teach disruptive pupils in large classes, they are offered support which varies from barely adequate to lamentably poor. The training they are given can be random, patronising and lacking specific relevance, and the response of hard-pressed management to referrals can be weak. As a result, teachers tend to pass the blame and the problems to those in authority, without having confidence in the outcome.

Given the opportunity to share skills and experience, groups of teachers have devised and developed strategies and training programmes for all staff. This process produces practical policies appropriate to the school, as well as giving responsibility to staff and encouraging a more positive attitude.

Subject departments can make or break a school's behaviour policy. If they feel isolated they will be defensive and antagonistic to pupils who hinder teaching. If they feel supported and consulted, they will create flexible structures to accommodate children's needs.

Some schools, having encouraged their principal teachers to share good practice, have published guidelines on behaviour management in departments, establishing common standards while recognising necessary differences. This has improved staff morale and reduced the referral of problem pupils to school management.

The role of guidance staff needs to be clarified. The current situation leaves them in every position from active punisher to interested onlooker. Having operated in the early Seventies from a simplistic authoritarian stance, some guidance staff then moved to the opposite pole and became detached counsellors, choosing to be absent in behaviour crises, in the mistaken belief that active involvement would damage relationships with pupils. As a result, guidance fails to make a positive contribution to the behaviour management of pupils, of whom they have important knowledge and experience. If, instead, they used their knowledge to influence behaviour programmes, guidance could provide the necessary balance between the needs of pupils and the needs of the school.

Behaviour support would have an important function, complementing the work of mainstream staff. In-class support would be a well-defined part of an overall programme to challenge and change a pupil's attitude. For pupils who are unable to operate in mainstream classes, support staff would provide alternative education. To acquire the skills for such a complex task, staff would need extensive training.

Every secondary school now needs to establish a behaviour support base, established on nationally-agreed principles. Good examples already exist, supporting and challenging troubled youngsters educated in a combination of integration and segregation. This allows them to succeed and progress, as well as benefiting their peers and teachers. In particular circumstances, the base will provide full-time education as preparation for reintegration or for leaving school.

School managers are crucial to the implementation of a successful behaviour policy. Instead of holding a beleaguered position at the receiving end of a negative referral procedure, they can control a positive system in which all staff know their roles, skills, strategies and support structures.

Beyond the school, the local authority will need to make off-site behaviour provision, however unpopular. Without it, the behaviour structure will crumble. Mainstream teachers will accept responsibility to educate difficult pupils, but only if their education department accepts some pupils are unable to cope with mainstream school.

The answer to difficult behaviour lies in improving present structures, rather than replacing them with novelty projects. Bad behaviour affects everybody - and everybody needs to be involved in the solution. A home-grown product is more likely to endure and be acceptable to all than any imported variety.

Schools, using working groups of staff who represent all areas and opinions, can create comprehensive programmes to manage difficult behaviour. By methodically reviewing their own practices, and studying the experiences of other schools, they can develop a whole-school strategy.

This may sound less exciting than the launch of a major initiative, but by generating their own policies and strategies, schools have reduced referral rates at all stages, educated pupils they used to reject, improved staff morale and self-belief. This has produced an environment in which difficult pupils can develop without harming the development of others.

Sandy Peterson was head of the Wester Hailes special unit in Edinburgh and is now a freelance consultant on behaviour policies

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