11th March 2005 at 00:00
Behaviour management experts all recommend simple solutions. Perhaps we could learn some from special schools, writes Phil Revell

In a well regarded secondary school in Lancashire, Peter Ravenscroft is a senior teacher with 20 years' experience. In his opinion, behaviour is worsening term by term. His views echo those of David Bell who commented in his annual report that behaviour is a serious problem in a minority of schools, but that almost all schools have pupils who misbehave repeatedly.The Chief Inspector pinpointed key stage 3 as the worst age.

"We had an excellent Ofsted report," says Mr Ravenscroft, "and the inspectors commented favourably on our behaviour standards." But the reality in his school, he says, is that teachers are finding it harder and harder to enforce any kind of discipline. Children simply ignore them.

"It's the fuck-off moment, when they realise that they can swear at a teacher without being I So what can teachers do? For an answer it may be worth going to those schools where behaviour really ought to be an issue: special schools.

"We have a discussion every day where we sit in a circle and talk through the issues bothering people. They listen to each other; you could hear a pin drop. I could take you into the boys' loos; they are lovely and there's not a mark in there."

The speaker is Dorothy Mitchell, head of Springwell Dean in Sunderland, a special school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Many of them have severe problems.

"Since we opened in 1987 we have lost 14 children to suicide," she says.

"We have children who have witnessed a parent being murdered. There are children here who can be very, very violent, and others who, before they came here, were absolutely impossible to manage."

There are 65 pupils; only six are girls. Mrs Mitchell says that EBD is largely a male problem; at times there have been no girls at all.

"That reflects the fact that men tend to act out their anger and frustration whilst women self- harm," she said. The school could fill its roll twice over if it had the room. There are 20 teachers, from a variety of backgrounds. Three are ex-army, but they don't run a boot camp.

"It's about building relationships," says Mrs Mitchell. "It's about individuality and respect. It needs a calm non-confrontational style."

The same messages about building respect, treating children as individuals and dealing with problems in a non-confrontational way can be heard at the opposite end of the country, in Devon's Ratcliffe school. Ratcliffe is also EBD. It takes children with many issues and disorders, ranging from Tourette's to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"The whole range," says Cherie White, Ratcliffe's headteacher. Her school is also a largely male institution: 58 on roll, five girls. Ratcliffe works with mainstream schools on behavioural issues. It offers six day-places to the local community school and the staff regularly go into local secondaries to offer advice and support.

Cherie White aims for a very positive ethos, using rewards and sanctions to manage behaviour. Consistency is absolutely crucial.

"The children know that if one member of staff says something in response to a problem then another member of staff will say the same thing," she says. But she stresses that consistency does not mean uniformity. "Teachers need to work with children individually. What works with one child doesn't necessarily work with another."

She believes that mainstream schools would benefit from investing more time in discussing individual pupils. Teachers who have the most challenging children in their classes should find some way to share information.

"Talk about what works and what doesn't," she advises. "Work to a child's strengths. He may not be good in English but he's fantastic at art."

Both special school heads stress the importance of managing serious incidents well. "We don't succeed with every child," says Dorothy Mitchell.

"We will get confrontations and a high level of bad language. It comes with the territory."

She emphasises the importance of getting the issue into perspective. "If a child has slept in a car the night before because he has been thrown out of home, he's not going to be in a frame of mind to be told off about his shoes," she says.

"You have to manage your own behaviour," she adds. "That can be hard.

Children know which buttons to press. If you are self-conscious about your weight, or your height, or your age, the kids will home in on that straight away."

She has witnessed nuclear-level confrontations when a member of staff has totally lost it with a pupil. "I've seen some scenarios where I've wondered 'Which one is the kid here?' " Nobody gains from that kind of outcome. After an incident Dorothy Mitchell insists the priority is to calm the pupil down. That can take time, but the pupil will not be rational immediately after an incident. It may mean leaving the room for a while, accompanied by another teacher or learning support assistant - easier said than done in some mainstream settings.

Once calm the pupil needs to reflect on his or her behaviour. "Get them to run a video in their heads. Get them to think about what they said and what they did," she says.

In Devon Cherie White adopts a very similar approach. She emphasises the need to bring others into the situation."Your colleague is there as a witness," she says.

There is also the possibility that the teacher who is handling the situation could be making it worse. She recommends devising a verbal code that allows one teacher to firmly suggest to the other that it's time to back off and let someone else manage the situation.

This isn't rocket science, but then most behaviour experts stress the simple approach. The difficulty is that so much depends on a unified staff response.

Badly behaving pupils are often capable of far more than they are achieving. Ofsted points out that behaviour is worst in schools where teachers have low expectations of pupils, where lessons lack challenge.

That isn't true at either Springwell Dean or Ratcliffe. Both schools have good results: 27 per cent of Ratcliffe's pupils gained top-grade GCSEs last year, better than many mainstream secondary schools.

Peter Ravenscroft is a pseudonym

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