Talk about bad behaviour

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Strange things are happening at a national conference on school discipline in Edinburgh today. Violence, aggression, crisis, drastic measures or political point-scoring are nowhere on the agenda: and yet teachers talk about their schools with excitement and animation.

Scottish education minister Raymond Robertson, launching the Promoting Positive Discipline in Scottish Schools conference, agrees with everyone that Scotland's main problem is not "big bang" incidents, but widespread low-level indiscipline. He invites education authorities and schools to bid for modest funds - unusually, nobody is crying "peanuts".

At a time of financial crisis, with fears that 1,500 Scottish teachers may lose their jobs, it is good that, while designing the Positive Discipline initiative, the Scottish Office has listened to teachers and parents. It also draws on research by the Scottish Schools' Ethos Network (SSEN) and the Scottish Initiative on Attendance and Absence (SIAA) - both sponsored by HMI's Audit Unit.

Professor Pamela Munn, director of SSEN, who co-manages the scheme with Cameron Munro, director of SIAA, puzzles on the contrast with England, characterised by huge public furores on indiscipline: "I'm not saying we're superior. But I think there's a greater commitment to state education here, a wider range of backgrounds attending the same school and a more consensual approach to policy. In England there's now much more competitive marketing of schools and

a bigger differential between them."

Yet even in Scotland, most research has been on the "extreme end" of indiscipline by a minority, rather than on developing whole-school policies that encourage, praise and reward good behaviour.

The conference, held in the Carlton Highland Hotel, highlights good practice - in particular, hearing from four headteachers from Scotland's main cities about the imaginative schemes they're already developing.

Funds have just been allocated to 12 schools from these four cities from a budget this year of #163;60,000. Now education authorities are being invited to bid for a further #163;100,000 available from April. Bids don't have to be for any dramatic new project; funds can go to the kind of work schools find especially hard to finance.

"It could be to buy in some staff developmen t, or to provide cover so teachers can be released to write up a project, or to allow them to visit other projects, or to set up pupil involvement in rule-setting," says Professor Munn.

"I want the initiative to make teachers more confident in their own strengths. I hope schools will be exposed to ideas they're not familiar with and be inspired to try them out. That may not sound dramatic, but education is littered with big initiatives which have all faded when the money has gone."

The initiative will support a mix of new projects - but what kinds will be considered for funding? Like the ones already selected, they should be imaginative and aim to improve discipline on a broad front - not simply to target a few pupils. They must be properly evaluated and the outcomes publicised. Examples, says the Audit Unit, might include:

u Engaging parents as active partners, or involving the local community;

u Promoting joint work between mainstream schools and special schools or units;

u Using the curriculum flexibly, to enable pupils to experience success and gain more motivation;

u Developing teachers' skills in managing classroom discipline across the whole school.

Will the (heavily-oversubscribed) conference, and the initiative itself, provide models that teachers can just gratefully rush away and copy? "That's a politician's view if you don't mind my saying so," grins Pamela Munn.

"If magic solutions or single answers existed, we'd all be buying them up.Unless a school culture and ethos changes, any package is only a bit of sticking-plaster. Even something as basic as displays of children's work on school walls reveals values and beliefs. Are there regular changes, and is every kid highlighted, or is it just a beautiful display that gets stuck in a time warp? Again, I've seen two schools using 'praise cultures'.One had a clearly-worked out system monitored to ensure no child was neglected. And the other had a big emphasis on academic attainment with lots of kids left out - it had a very divisive effect."

"This initiative isn't about star schools or about creaming off a few schools for funding," says Cameron Munro, from his Jordanhill College base."It's about saying there's lots of good practice here, let's get schools to network, and have the confidence to talk openly about behaviour and relationships. For some it will be about simply admitting they have a problem and addressing it for the first time. It's just as valuable and deserving of support for schools to start with the basics, and evaluate where they are."

u For Govan High School's anti-bullying scheme, which has also won funding under the Scottish Office's Positive Discipline initiative, see School Management, page 21

Primary - 'circling' and golden time

A mouthful such as "positive behaviour management " may be a jargon phrase, but turning it into reality has raised great enthusiasm and commitment for teachers like Helen Tipping, acting head of Dundee's Ancram Road Primary School. The school gives a presentation today, along with Aberdeen's Quarryhill Primary - whose initiatives, including counselling and support, have seen a high demand for places in a school from a deprived area of the city.

When Ancram Road began looking at discipline a few years ago they found they were concentrating on bad behaviour. They wanted to praise what was good, and also to help children speak about anything that upset or worried them.

Inspired by the writings of Jenny Mosley - whom they invited to speak to them - one of several initiatives they launched was "circling", a forum for discussion and problem-solving.

"Children sit in a circle, everyone is equal and has things to offer. It's a fun thing too, which is important. Children bring up issues and play games which encourage them to think of others. Teachers can raise issues in different ways, like asking them about something that has made them happy this week," says Mrs Tipping.

Pupils prove surprisingly sensitive and try to solve each other's problems. But do they find some children begin to reveal more disturbing things, like abuse? "Particular problems at home we wouldn't see as appropriate for circling. We would say 'Maybe that's something you'd like to talk with me about later'. But I think it has helped create an atmosphere of trust where children do feel they can confide in teachers about big things that are worrying them."

Circling in a big group doesn't usually work well for the minority of disturbed children - often they can't handle it and become disruptive. "But with plenty of staff support, we can get a lot from working in smaller circles of their own."

The school has also introduced "golden time", a weekly half-hour where classes can be rewarded by choosing what they want to do. One surprising result is the popularity of visiting the youngest classes to help and work with the kids. Instead of seeing them as a pain in the neck, older children are falling over themselves for the chance to help out: "And boys are just as enthusiastic as girls," says Mrs Tipping.

Secondary - 'possies' and merit certificates

Tynecastle High in Edinburgh is (almost) embarrassed about recent publicity about their "possies" or "positive referrals" system. Not traditionally a school to blow its own trumpet, this inner-city comprehensive doesn't do it in the corridors either - it seems so quiet and orderly they've obviously got a secret worth sharing.

But headteacher Mike Hay makes the point that the "possie" forms teachers give pupils to take home for all kinds of achievement or good behaviour, along with their merit certificate system are just one part of a whole-school discipline system where pupils know exactly what the rules are, and the sequence of penalties for breaking them. "Clear sanctions, clear rules, positive rewards," he says.

The result has been a near-50 per cent drop in negative referrals, unexpected big improvements in Standard grade results and the pupils, says Mike Hay, seem happier and more relaxed.

But don't positive referrals encourage a goody-goody, teacher's pet mentality? "No, because so many children get them, for so many different things, we've given out 1,300 since August in an 800-pupil school."

"I was good at making children jump," reveals ebullient head of history Andrew Savage, "and positives didn't come so easily - but children respond to praise. People say, why should you thank children for doing what they should be doing? Yet adults do this to each other all the time. I'd say that the clear, simplified rules have made our job even easier than the 'possies'. Children want consistency most of all from teachers, and it removes the need to nag. Teachers don't object to the extra form-filling, because their real fear with increased workload is that it will be to no effect. If it makes an improvement, then they don't mind at all."

There was nothing goody-goody about the laid-back group of sixth years canvassed for their views ("Possies are more beneficial to the younger years, we have to work anyway," they sighed). But they were impressed with the system and pointed out the real benefits to pupils' records of achievement when they applied for jobs. They also revealed that some of the hardest cases in the school were "really, really happy" to take the certificates home, though they may not always admit it.

The other secondary presentation at the school discipline conference is from Iain Duncan, head of the large Bannerman High, from a mixed catchment area in Glasgow's East End. Bannerman has developed an impressive computer database of all discipline referrals in the school - in order to monitor them better, and thus improve pupils' behaviour.

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