A no-nonsense whole school approach to behaviour can be led from the top, says deputy headteacher David Morley, who here shares tips on how

I did spot them on my preliminary tour of the school but put it down to it being a bad day. I saw them again on interview day – but this time it was different; they would vanish as various dignitaries roamed the school, only to reappear later, tucked in a remote corner. They were the ‘Corridor Club’ – the excluded students who wander the halls of schools where a structured approach to discipline has crumbled, replaced with ad-hoc bouts of teacher’s revenge – the consequences of administering punishment while angry!

So how can the tide be turned? Where do you start the process of getting bad behaviour back on track? In a school where standards of behaviour are low, it becomes inevitable that pupil performance will dip. But if you want to make progress you must start by taking some sort of benchmark – talk to the parents, listen to pupils and staff. Find out from them where they think it is going wrong and what should happen next – listen to their ideas and incorporate them into your plans. This will be invaluable in the weeks and months down the line.

School is cool when you follow the rules!
One of the first starting points was to examine the school rules. There seems to have been a trend a few years ago to spend hours examining the meaning of every word used in a school’s rules. The result meant you ended up with a strange concoction of niceties which skirt around the point. Rules are all about bringing order, structure and discipline to your school – without these vital ingredients, your school will never flourish. School rules need to fulfil four vital criteria:

  • aim to be positive – reaffirming the type of behaviour you do want
  • they need to be obvious – lose the airy-fairy waffle
  • understood by all stakeholders – pupils, parents and staff
  • be brief so that they can be easily displayed and are clearly visible.

If you are going to re-evaluate your school rules, you will need at least to consult with your pupils to gain their opinions – sounds like a job for the school council.

The major problem I encountered when I arrived at my current school lay in the wording of the school rules. It was obvious that a great deal of time had been put into thinking about the wording, however, what rule was broken if a child said, ‘No’? You could attempt to manipulate the existing rule: ‘Well, you have been rude and defiant, so the rule you have broken is…em…“We are thoughtful to the feelings of others”.’ It just doesn’t work, does it? It is really important that school rules are not just a list of no’s and don’ts; they must be very clear. After rethinking the primary message we wanted to convey to the students, our first new rule became ‘Follow instructions’.

I have been challenged over this in discussions with academics and do-gooders: ‘Basically, what you mean is, David, that children should do what they are told!’ My response is, ‘Absolutely; of course they should.’ While it is important that we teach our children to question, challenge and respond, they also need to know when to do as expected and keep quiet. What’s more, this is achievable. The rule is followed by some small print: ‘Listen to all adults working in the school.’

We also felt that there were too many aggressive incidents in our school. Yet posturing and shoving couldn’t be classified as explicitly forbidden within the old rules. When we added, ‘Be gentle, kind and polite; keep hands, feet and unkind words to yourself’, it meant that all aspects of physical and verbal aggression are included, as well as any aspects of racism or bullying. To really hammer this message home, we decided that any physical aggression was punishable by the student missing both their break-time and lunchtime.

Following this, it was considered important that the children show greater respect for the environment that they learned in. Too often doors would be slammed and chairs knocked over as children fought to get their own way and gain acknowledgement from adults. Our new rule of ‘Value people’s belongings; respect the school and other people’s property’ had a big impact.

Our fourth new rule was ‘Be honest; tell the truth’. We aimed to reinforce the message as often as possible so that, while children would still be punished for misbehaviour, they would get into less trouble if they told the truth. The children took this on board and now considerable time is saved with incidents. This does not mean, though, that every child confesses all the time!

What happened next: taking responsibility
So what should be done with those children who break the rules? You need to have a very clear structure of consequences which is on display throughout the school. Ours are as follows:

  • verbal warning
  • five minutes time out
  • missed break and/or lunchtime
  • see senior teacher – parents informed
  • meet with the headteacher/deputy headteacher.

Each classroom has a dry wipe board on which to record poor-quality behaviour. This is a common process in all schools and is a key to success. However, much of the improvement we have made is through contact and communication with parents. On initiating the list of consequences, we also provided staff with a ‘missed’ break form where teachers could record the child’s name and the date of the incident. When a child had been given too many of these warning, their parents would be contacted.

This is where our problems began. What constituted too many? How long should the period be before we made parents aware? Degrees of hostility from parents were also encountered. They wanted to know the number of missed breaks, what they were for and why parents had not made aware of them earlier.

We had to design a more successful system. We decided that five missed breaks in a half term would definitely give us cause to contact a child’s parents. If we were to do this, then it was vital that the information we gathered had to be accurate and detailed enough to recall at a later date if required. Our new forms had not only name and date, but also the school rule the child had broken, a comment box on how they had broken it and the name of the member of staff who had issued the discipline.

To tackle the common complaint of ‘Why didn’t you tell me about it sooner?’ we made the children responsible for informing their parents each and every time they had a missed break. We even added a tick box on the form so that teachers could remind the children to do this. We sent copies of the Golden Rules and the consequences of breaking them home to parents, together with a letter informing them of our plans. We continued to place reminders in our school newsletters asking parents to check regularly with their children if they have had any missed breaks, as well as informing parents that they can check with their child’s class teacher at any time.

Passing on responsibility to the children for informing their parents by making them accountable for their actions made a huge difference. We have not had parents questioning the school when a fifth missed break letter arrives on their doorstep. (Yes – we do post it!)

Maintaining consistency
Without consistency throughout the school you will not be successful. Lack of constancy means you will be lacking the thing that all children hold very dearly – fairness. You need to ensure that incidents are dealt with in the same way. The only way that this can be achieved is by having a team of adults around you who have the skills to make decisions on the appropriate consequence rather than to dispense justice while angry – unfortunately a course of action too familiar in some schools.

If you decide to implement a similar system to the one that has been so successful for us, you will need to monitor carefully who is issuing missed breaks and how regularly they are doing it. This will provide you with early indications if someone is being rather ‘trigger happy’. If they are, you need to talk to them and provide strategies on how to manage behaviour is a more controlled way.

Flourishing creativity and inspiring add-ons!
I have no doubt that much of our success can also be put down to our new approach to a creative curriculum. Over a period of a couple of years we took the time to re-examine what we were teaching and how we were teaching it. We felt that the children were not being inspired sufficiently and that learning was just happening to them.

We combined our new approach with the introduction of BLP (Building Learning Power) – a programme devised by Guy Claxton which teaches children how to become better learners, now and in the future. By making these changes and engaging more fully with the children in the classroom, we realised the children felt better about their learning and really could see what was in it for them.

I have known of some schools where, when the going got tough, they put up the shutters. Out went trips, visitors, special events, activities, special rewards and theme days because senior management felt that, the staff did not have the will left to organise such events and the children did not deserve them. At my school, we felt that the contrary was true: the more exciting you made your school, the more opportunities that you presented to your children, the more exciting the school becomes. This created a sense of belonging; a place where the children wanted to be.

With the school becoming more exciting, the children had something to look forward too. When we adapted our behaviour policy to include children missing significant school events if they reached five missed breaks, children became increasingly aware that their actions had consequences. Children who reached 25 missed breaks by the time a residential trip had arrived were not allowed to take part in the activity. This had the desired effect on getting good behaviour.

Learning mentors
In 2005 our learning mentors began work. Their mission was to break down the barriers to learning by supporting teachers in classes that were disruptive and by removing children from classes where their presence was stopping others from learning. They also put in place courses like anger management for children and parenting classes for parents. Mentors played a major role in our progress. They worked alongside teaching assistants and supported them with the implementation of behaviour management strategies. Their presence meant that teachers were able to make accelerated progress with the children’s learning.

It is vital to remember to look back at what you have done and how you have achieved it. We made great progress with our behaviour and have recently begun to re-evaluate what our next steps are. We have carried out a consultation with parents. Asking for their opinions about behaviour in our school and how they think we can move the standard of behaviour from good to outstanding. The response was very positive: 100% of parents wanted us to take further steps in coming down hard on those children who break the golden rules. Getting their trust and support was essential to achieving a better environment in the school.

This is not a science!
My aim in this article has been to tell you about what has worked well for us in our circumstances. I don’t claim to be a leading thinker on behavioural issues, just a school leader in a school where practical solutions have been put in place to deal with difficult issues. This sort of approach will not work with all children. Sadly, some children’s behavioural issues are so severe that a few missed breaks are not going to make the difference!

David Morley is deputy head of a large Primary School in Milton Keynes and a guest conference speaker