Talk about bad behaviour

17th January 1997 at 00:00
With a national conference on positive discipline taking place in Edinburgh today, Sarah Nelson reports on money for new projects - and on two Scottish schemes

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 Pounds 60,000. Now education authorities are being invited to bid for a further Pounds 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 development, 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: * Engaging parents as active partners, or involving the local community; * Promoting joint work between mainstream schools and special schools or units; * Using the curriculum flexibly, to enable pupils to experience success and gain more motivation; * 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."

* 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

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