Winning the war on classroom terror

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Phil Revell finds that if teachers take more responsibility peace can be brought to the most troubled schools

Name: Nicholas Chamberlaine technology college

School type: 11-18 comprehensive.

Pupils on roll: 1,585.

Pupils achieving five or more A*-C GCSEs: 33 per cent.

Special needs: 16 per cent Free school meals: 11 per cent.

Five years ago inspectors were assaulted in the corridors at Nicholas Chamberlaine school in Bedworth. Halfway through that disastrous experience, the lead inspector told temporary head Lesley King that she had a potential Ridings on her hands.

Predictably the Warwickshire school failed the inspection, plummeting into special measures with one of the worst reports ever published.

But a 2004 visitor sees an utterly different picture: corridors are litter-free; students are open, polite and helpful; children in classrooms are quiet and attentive.

So how did they do it? Other schools blighted by antisocial behaviour would love to know. In too many schools staff are routinely sworn at and assaulted, and children face a daily diet of bullying and chaos.

Unions claim that poor behaviour now ranks with workload as the main reason teachers quit the job. Ministers are concerned enough to be throwing money at the problem, at least in the inner cities.

Certainly any teacher working at Nicholas Chamberlaine five years ago could have been forgiven for wanting to quit its intimidating atmosphere. Pupils too felt the strain.

"Year 7 for me was quite a daunting experience. There was no safety net and it felt like you were against everybody else," says sixth-former Scott Varney.

"Between lessons the older pupils seemed to think it was their right to mess around with the buzzers - the little ones," agrees Natalie Richardson.

"They did that because they knew they could get away with it."

Not any more. Today the one certainty at the school is that miscreants will get their come-uppance. All resemblance to the The Ridings, once dubbed "the worst school in Britain", has disappeared.

"People know that they are in for a hard time if they break the rules," says Natalie.

The school came out of special measures in 2002. This year's Ofsted report describes it as increasingly effective and pupils' behaviour as good. The phrase "zero tolerance" is probably over-used. But Lesley King, who stayed at the school, and helped to steer it out of special measures, is adamant that clear lines have to be drawn.

"If you want to change the ethos of a school it's about getting the balance right between praise and blame," she says.

She is a firm believer in that twin-track approach. The students have to feel that they belong, that it's their school, a place where they are valued.

To that end the school has instituted student forums, a guardian scheme of Year 10 prefects who help with break and lunchtime duties, sixth-form counsellors and a host of rewards for achievement and good behaviour.

One of Ms King's innovations is a celebration day for Years 11 and 13 on the day they start their exam study leave. In many schools this is a difficult day where unofficial celebrations take the form of water fights, egg and flour attacks and fire alarm hoaxes.

But at Nicholas Chamberlaine pupils are asked to come to school in their best clothes. They arrive in stretch limos, and there are assemblies and pictures both formal and informal. There is a paid-for lunch and a series of tearful goodbyes.

A group of challenging Year 9 pupils was picked out for a programme of after-school activities and workshops, to develop confidence and leadership skills. It has transformed them, says Ms King.

"It has helped my to control my temper - now I'm not afraid to ask for help," said one child.

Ms King's colleagues described her approach as relentless. One of her decisions was to double staff duties, with two duty periods a week instead of one. Staff were asked to use the time to build relationships with students, not just to act as policemen.

Another early innovation was sending senior managers to patrol outside the gates before and after school. This not only encourages children to behave better, but allows parents to approach and talk to the head directly.

Nicholas Chamberlaine receives no Excellence in Cities funding, yet the school has mentors and a behaviour support centre to help manage difficult pupils.

Previously there was a "respite room", where badly behaved children could be sent during lessons. Ms King closed it down.

"The old system meant that teachers were absolved of responsibility for managing the behaviour in their class," she said.

Now, the school has a phased approach (see box) - only the children in the highest phase are routinely withdrawn from lessons. "Teachers cannot just send children to the centre," says Ms King.

Before a child is moved up the phase list teachers have to detail what measures they have taken to manage their behaviour in class.

"I have a maximum of 14 and it's usually about 12," says centre manager Jane Cooper. "It isn't about punishment. I say to them: 'What did you do? What could you have done? Let's role-play it to see how it could have ended differently'."

The school is now a specialist technology college. Results have improved, though they are still below average. But Lesley King believes exam results cannot be addressed until a school has secure discipline.

There are still problems, but now learning is the norm and loutish behaviour is seen as unacceptable.

"It has to be fair," said Lesley King. "But I think that if you are fair then you can be as tough as old boots."


Phase 1 is an information phase - a chance for teachers to discuss problems and possible strategies with the pupil.

Phase 2 brings in the subject leader who, under the new system, has a key role in managing the behaviour within the departmental team.

Phase 3 brings in the team leader, usually the year head or head of phase.

Phase 4 sees the senior management team becoming involved.

Phase 5 sees a child referred to the onsite behaviour support centre.

Teachers are also supported and monitored by senior staff. Each teacher is observed every half term by a subject leader or line manager. Each member of the leadership team directly manages a curriculum area.

There are also extra spot checks. Student shadowing was tried but abandoned as too disruptive for teachers.

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