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Work means work and the time is right now

This week we have had our students wearing uniforms . . . uniforms! But I noticed the social care students had subliminally all turned up wearing gypsy skirts with big, wide belts, and had their belly buttons pierced.

The beauty therapy students wore all-black with colourful necklaces. I am sure that if we had tried to impose such uniforms, we could not have had such compliance - or could we?

At Jewel and Esk Valley College, we continue to have a particular focus on student behaviour and attendance. The average age of our students is 31 and, for most, their behaviour is not an issue; however, attendance is.

Scotland's colleges accept students of all ages, backgrounds and histories, and it is to our credit and our great strength that about 85 per cent achieve their aim. But it is not easy.

Our self-evaluation review revealed the behaviour and attendance of students was seen by lecturers as a major barrier to good teaching and effective learning, and hence achievement.

I formed a group of teaching staff to nail the issue, and found lecturers telling me that, when disciplining a student, they said "and if you do it again I'll . . ." But they had no sanction short of a full disciplinary hearing.

The attendance issue was epitomised by the student who asked the bursary officer if her attendance had dropped below 80 per cent (the cut-off point for withdrawal of a bursary) as she wanted the following day off.

Punctuality boiled down to the lack of clocks in the college, lack of sanctions and lecturers not starting on time. Having nailed the issues, I had to find an innovative and workable solution. First I searched the internet.

But it was at a barbecue when the solution came to me. My host was a regimental sergeant major who worked with army cadets, so discipline is led from the top. We designed and implemented a simple process by which staff can report (book) students for any behaviour outside a clear code of conduct (exactly like the army).

Any member of staff can book a student and bookings are recorded centrally.

On the first booking, the student gets a letter signed by me, a further booking gets another very strong letter, and an intervention by the head of faculty to discuss whether they stay on their course.

Lecturers, in exchange for starting on time, were enabled to exclude students from class if they were more than five minutes late. Clocks were installed around the college.

This session, we are recording attendances electronically and have put in place absence management by tutors. But, if attendance falls below 90 per cent, our student services will pick up the issue and either support the student or withdraw him or her.

The new white-knuckle ride for this coming session is that we have enabled the students' association to run its own booking system, so a student can book another student. The letters come from the student president, and the final sanction is that the course tutor is informed and he or she can use the formal college systems as appropriate.

The trick was to communicate the correct message. Because the bursary cut-off point is 80 per cent, we condoned 20 per cent absenteeism; because there was no sanction, we promoted ignorance of the code of conduct; because we did not keep up our standards, we condoned lateness.

As principal, I shared with staff the standards of student behaviour I would expect of students in my class, and the standards I would set myself.

The students get a simple message: behave as you would in the workplace, attend as you would in the workplace (namely 100 per cent attendance expectation) and apply yourself to your study as you would to your work.

In the first year, we booked 327 students out of 9,000 and dismissed (just like work) 39 students; the previous year we had excluded 114 students.

Behaviour across the college markedly improved, as did attendance and achievement. Lectures started on time and the place was much more relaxed.

The biggest effect was on the staff: morale was raised, smiles appeared and the self-evaluation reviews have started to feature reviews of learning and teaching styles, rather than coping strategies.

Maybe next year we will try uniforms.

Howard McKenzie is principal of Jewel and Esk Valley College.

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