Exceptional learner conduct is underpinned by intelligent policy. But what are the key elements of successful conduct and behaviour systems? And what small changes can you make today to build consistency for staff and learners?
Short and sweet
Start with something simple. Ask a range of different learners what they think the rules of the college are. Ask some staff too. They will doubtless look into the distance and mutter, “Oh, yes, I did see some once.” Or they’ll laugh heartily as if you are being deliberately facetious.
They don’t know them. Nobody knows them. Because the list is so ridiculously long.
More often than not, there will be a code of conduct that extends to 20 or 30 rules, with separate procedures hidden deep in college policy around everything from guns, knives and drugs to badgers and atomic weapons.
There are rules about dress, and rules about conduct in the canteen, in the corridor and on visits and work placements. The inmates of Alcatraz had 52 rules (and a long time to learn them). How many does your college have?
The chaos of too many rules means that leadership teams have designed inconsistency into their policy at the very foundations. If learners and staff can’t remember the rules, you have too many. If they have to look them up online, search for a poster or refer to a weighty induction file, you have too many.
Why would anyone need more than three simple rules? Whether they are “Ready, respectful, safe”, or “Dignity, humility, integrity”, the titles are not important. What is critical is that staff refer to them constantly in positive and negative behaviour interventions. They should be woven through college life: the naming of awards at the end of the year; the language of each faculty; the daily recognition that great colleges always give their learners.
Alongside the “conduct policy” there is always a separate “disciplinary policy”, which is operated by senior leaders whose specialism is managing bureaucracy – not managing learners.
Rigid disciplinary systems with “levels”, “written warnings” and “formal meetings” fuel a detachment on the part of learners that does not meet anyone’s needs. At its worst, it is an unempathetic travelator out of college rather than an attempt to genuinely re-engage.
When learners are struggling, give them support, not just red lines and stern faces. They don’t need the dark suits of doom but a learning coach, detached from any process, to support, mentor and guide. A problem-solver, not a process monkey. A skilled, empathetic specialist who can work with the learner to meet their needs and stem the flow of poor conduct. Someone who understands that learners with additional needs are not “behaviour problems”.
Cause for concern?
At the heart of bad policy lies the “cause for concern” system, a relic of the old school that simply refuses to die. When staff pass a slip to a more senior colleague, the learner understands one simple message: “You can’t deal with me.”
Nothing says “I give up” more than “cause for concern” slips. In many colleges, the system is overloaded with minor referrals. Senior staff don’t have time to deal with the most urgent cases, communication breaks down and messages go unanswered. Mistrust between staff and senior leaders begins to breed.
Get rid of the “cause for concern” system. Throw it away. Without bits of paper or emails to defer responsibility, people start working together, communicating more clearly and managing poor behaviour in teams, at source.
The best colleges have policies that are simple, concise and fully understood by everyone. They don’t create a Kafkaesque process that no one truly understands. They use simple policy to drive consistent practice and get on with the real business of teaching, learning and inspiring.
Paul Dix is a behaviour specialist and founder of Pivotal Education. He tweets at @pivotalpaul