In my discussions with my new colleagues at Highbury Grove we’ve talked about the need to ensure that the teaching and learning agenda is put at the centre of all we do – in terms of CPD, ethos and our overall improvement strategy it is the most important thing. But we’ve also agreed that getting behaviour right is the first priority. That’s not a contradiction; both are inter-related but one is the platform for the other. We’re planning to implement a process leading to a school-wide step-change in the behaviour standards, raising expectations significantly and putting the necessary enforcement and support structures in place.
Although standards of behaviour are generally very good and the school feels like a relaxed and happy place, most people express the sense that they expend too much energy in mopping up behaviour issues day-to-day, reinforcing basic standards in lessons and the corridors ; staff definitely feel there is another level to reach.
I was very interested to read the OfSTED guidance published for September 2014. The language used in the Outstanding descriptor is extremely aspirational. I like it – even though it presents a challenge:
Although I’m sceptical that an OfSTED inspection is sophisticated enough to evaluate a school against these criteria in an accurate manner, the descriptors are helpful for internal purposes. What matters is that behaviour meets these standards on any and every given day ( ie when no-one is looking).
These are the stand-out phrases:
- Pupils consistently display a thirst for knowledge
- Pupil’s behaviour outside lessons is impeccable
- [There is] an exceptionally positive climate for learning
We are going to be on a mission to create a culture where those three statements are a genuine description of standards in the school. It won’t happen instantly but it can be done.
We’re planning a transition process that other schools I know have followed. Some have used the ‘Behaviour for Learning’ template developed at Ninestiles school in Birmingham. Others have taken their own unique approach. We’ll be drawing on all the ideas we can find to create something distinctive for Highbury Grove. The transition will take up the first half-term in the first instance. We’ve already planned two additional half-day closures in September so that staff can address this issue in full. This is a rough outline of the thinking so far:
Stage 1. Establishing the principles
In our first half-day session we’ll consider the principles of excellent behaviour management. I will be suggesting that we consider some of the following: (NB these are my early thoughts only – it’s open to discussion).
- Our rationale for creating a system that leads to a highly disciplined school is that it enables us to focus on learning to the greatest extent possible; the system is not an end on itself – we need it so that learning can flourish.
- We need to re-affirm a shared belief that every student is capable of meeting very high expectations of behaviour, albeit with support in some cases. We do not do any student a favour by expecting less of them than we do of others or by allowing the challenges in their lives to lower our expectations of them.
- High standards of behaviour and uniform are entirely compatible with a friendly, happy, relaxed school and form the platform for high expectations of academic achievement. Compliance is not a negative; it is a positive as this frees us to focus on learning and positive relationships; compliance helps us to channel energy into productive learning and appropriate means for expressing views. Student Voice matters; but it needs to be formalised such that learning and order have priority.
- Staff-student interactions need to be characterised by a blend of ‘unconditional positive regard’ (to borrow from Vic Goddard) and assertive authority. Teachers should be assertive without being autocratic; teachers should not say or do anything that actively harms students’ self-esteem: no sarcasm, no put-downs; no public humiliation. We should seek to resolve conflict where it arises and repair and rebuild relationships where they break down.
- All staff are involved in the system without exception; students should be expected to cooperate with any staff member regardless of their job role or perceived status. Similarly, all members of staff need to follow the agreed protocols; actions that undermine the system or run counter to the school ethos will put unacceptable pressure on those staff members with the least confidence and experience. We’ll act as a team, supporting each other.
- Individual teachers need to continually develop the skills of classroom management as the first line of enforcement, with a focus on building positive relationships and establishing firm boundaries. The school system must support teachers but the most effective learning will happen where teachers are able to enforce standards independently to the greatest degree possible. Where teachers need support to do this, they should receive it without prejudice; we don’t all have the same skills but we are all in it together. We need both strong system and strong teachers.
- The sanctions system should be presented and enforced so that, to the greatest extent possible, students are making clear choices if and when they breach the agreed rules and teachers are simply issuing sanctions based on students’ choices; it’s not a personal decision they make. Action A leads to consequence B; it is a choice students know is theirs to make – or not make. Some rules will require automatic sanctions in order to be effective. eg, if the uniform rules are broken, it is a deliberate choice leading to an automatic sanction, not a matter for negotiation. Other rules, particularly those in classroom, need to be enforced through a clear warnings system which teachers use to lever the improved standards we’re looking for. Students know they will receive warnings but that repeat offending will be met with a sanction regardless of who the teacher is. The goal is that everyone knows the rules, the mechanics of the system and what will happen in any given circumstance.
- The sanctions need to be delivered in a fashion that generates a significant disincentive for students to repeat their transgressions. Detentions should be long, silent and boring; not opportunities to catch up on work or talk. Isolation days should be tough; a hard day with minimal contact with others; a day that you do not want to experience again in a hurry.
- Inclusion does not mean that we are afraid of exclusion where it is necessary. A bottom line is that no student can be allowed to disrupt the learning of others. The needs of the majority outweigh any challenges an individual may have in meeting our expectations where their actions impede the learning of others. At the same time, we need to anticipate that there will be small number of students who will find the new system very challenging and will need pre-emptive support to prepare them.
- Rewards associated with behaviour are problematic; the rewards need to intrinsic – through the affirmation of teachers and peers or the positive experience of learning and being able to participate. We can’t get into rewarding students through extrinsic rewards simply for doing what is expected .
I’m thinking aloud here but that list captures my perspective.
Stage 2. Agreeing the details.
After considering the principles, we will look to define a set of rules that are simple to communicate and to enforce. They need to focus on behaviour in lessons; behaviour in corridors and around the school; behaviour outside the school. We need to agree the aspects of uniform that will be enforced by automatic sanctions, what we mean by ‘late’, what we expect in terms of personal equipment, use of electronic devices, noise levels, movement in and between lessons and the extent to which homework can or should be included among the other issues.
We need to agree to the details of the sanctions: a first level of warnings; a second level of routine after-school detentions with higher level sanctions including days spent in isolation, Saturday detentions and formal exclusions. At my daughter’s school, for example, arriving late to a lesson results in an automatic detention the next day. The consequence: the majority of students are not late to lessons. At KEGS, students have an automatic lunchtime detention if they break the uniform rules; shirt un-tucked or top button undone = detention. Consequence: 99% of students wear the uniform correctly at all times. That’s what we are after – a system where students know for certain that a consequence will follow such that they change their behaviour in the direction of compliance. They know where they stand.
A major part of our second half-day session will be to walk through all the possible scenarios that staff can imagine. If X happens, what will follow? What should be said and done by the staff member and how is this reported and recorded? It’s vital that everyone understands who does what and what are the follow-up actions will be.
In parallel with discussions among staff, we will be holding consultation meetings with parents and tutor-time sessions with students. This is partly to build buy-in to the changes that will occur but also to factor in a range of perspectives about the way sanctions operate. Everyone expects clarity, consistency, fairness and justice and, when the bar is going to be raised significantly, it will be important for everyone in the community to see this coming before it happens and to have had input into the system.
Stage 3. The Launch
A key decision will be to decide a date for the change to occur. On an agreed date the new rules and sanctions will be introduced – a step-change will be made. We need to balance a the desire to implement the change as early as possible with giving ourselves the time to get everyone ready for it: students, staff and parents.
Ahead of the launch date, we’ll run assemblies and tutor-time sessions where the details are explained, stressing that the consequences will be enforced and that students have the choice to meet them or go through the hierarchy of consequences.
I expect that, in the first phase, there will be a lot detentions and isolations as students learn where the new boundaries lie. Each teacher will be getting used to using the agreed language for the sanctions and it will take a while for everyone just to fully understand how it all works in practice. Gradually, as the system kicks in and students adjust, the numbers will fall and we’ll get into a routine.
Stage 4. The long haul: monitoring and adapting.
After the launch phase, we’ll be in it for the long haul. We’ll need to be responsive, adjusting rules and sanctions depending on how well things are working. Individual teachers will need support, some more than others. Students, parents and teachers will be asked to give feedback each term and then each year as to how they feel the system could be improved so that we’re continually ramping up the standards and getting ever closer to that impeccable behaviour and exceptionally positive climate for learning.
Finding a New Equilibrium:
One of the ways I think about the change we’ll be undertaking is to think about equilibrium. A relaxed and happy school is in equilibrium where the majority of students meet the school’s expectations and the need for conflict and challenge is relatively low. However, the level of expectations in that scenario can be low or high. Consider uniform as an example; I always think that uniform is a reasonable indicator of a school’s expectations. Of course there are a few great schools with no uniform at all (that’s a different debate) and there’s the clip-on tie veneer issue (another debate!) – but there aren’t many great schools with a uniform that looks terrible. That’s because, in a great school, the school’s expectations are high and are met.
Let’s take Waterloo Road for example. (Not a real school, I do realise.) Plenty of schools have the Waterloo Road look and this tells you something about expectations. Within certain parameters, the students don’t expect to be challenged or sanctioned over the way they are dressed – it is just how things are; uniform is negotiable. On the right, the school uniform is impeccable. The students appear to expect to have to dress that way – it’s their normality, no arguments; they accept the boundaries and live happily within them. In both scenarios, the students appear relaxed and happy; there is an equilibrium – but the difference in expectations is clear. The boundaries are different.
At Waterloo Road some teachers will believe that it isn’t realistic for students to dress smartly; it won’t be worth the energy to enforce it; it would risk the happy atmosphere to introduce more challenge. Some parents may agree. On the other hand, they may be desperate to change things but feel the systems just don’t work – everyone is working alone and the students just bounce from one to another, flaunting the rules without sanction. To secure a transition to a smart school look, Waterloo Road would have to address all of these concerns: Yes, it can be done; yes, it is worth it; yes, the system will support everyone in enforcing the expectations and yes, once we’ve finished, the school will remain a relaxed and happy place. And, of course, there will need to be a big shift in peer group attitudes. If you have a bit of self-belief and high aspirations, it isn’t actually that cool to go a school where everyone looks a bit rough in their uniform.
Does this translate in an analogous manner to attitudes to learning? I’d argue that it does. If you can’t challenge over a top button, will you challenge over standards of work, concentration and respect for the learning of others? It may not be a direct link ( a smart student may be disruptive in lessons and a scruffy student a delight to teach ) but, school-wide, there’s certainly a link in my view – and my new colleagues seem to concur. The challenge, then, is to move from one equilibrium position to another. Just as in lighting a match to activate a chemical reaction or opening a parachute to undertake a terminal velocity transition, we need to engineer a system change that will get us to where we want to be. That will be a period of some turmoil and pain requiring significant energy, but the prize will be a relaxed and happy school with very high standards – impeccable standards!
Watch this space – I’ll let you know how it goes.