Successful discipline is as much about positive reinforcement as it is about punishing bad behaviour. Ingrid Sutherland looks at the latest good practice

Back in May 2007, we summarised the main changes to the law on school discipline and pupil behaviour. Here we concentrate on sections of the new guidance for schools on discipline and pupil behaviour policies, covering:

  • the power to discipline and the use of disciplinary sanctions
  • misbehaviour outside school premises
  • promoting and rewarding good behaviour

These sections of the guidance are recommended good practice and schools are strongly advised to follow them. Schools are not required by law to have regard to them, but these sections will help understand how to implement the relevant legal powers and responsibilities.

Power to discipline

The Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives all teachers and other
staff in charge of pupils a power to discipline pupils for breaches of school rules, failure to follow instructions or other unacceptable conduct.

  • sanctions must be reasonable and proportionate to the circumstances of the case schools should monitor the use of sanctions

What the legal power covers
Specifically it is a power for teachers and certain other school staff to enforce disciplinary penalties where a pupil’s behaviour falls below the standard that could reasonably be expected of him or her. It can extend to disciplining pupils outside school premises in certain circumstances.

Staff in lawful control or charge of pupils have the power to discipline, except if the head has determined that a staff member is not permitted to impose the penalty on the pupil in question.

Extension of the power
A head can extend the power, as is reasonable, to any other adult who has lawful control of pupils, such as a parent volunteering to supervise a football match or help on a school trip. The power can relate to an individual pupil or staff member, a particular group of pupils, all pupils, or a particular group of staff.

There are no legal requirements for how staff or pupils should be notified of such a decision. This is a matter of common sense and professional judgement, but notification should be in writing (e.g. in staff contracts) and part of the school’s discipline policy.

The general power to discipline does not cover exclusion of pupils. And corporal punishment , which includes the use of force as a punishment, is still illegal.

To safeguard pupils against unfair or inappropriate punishments, a disciplinary penalty must be reasonable; not breach any statutory requirement or prohibition (including legislation on special educational needs, disability, race and other equalities and human rights); and take account of the pupil’s age, any SEN or disability s/he might have, and any religious requirements affecting the pupil.

What this means for schools in practical terms

Effective disciplinary sanctions
Schools should have an appropriately wide range and scale of disciplinary sanctions, allowing responses that are reasonable and proportionate.

The school discipline policy should explain the reasons why the sanctions are used — for example:

  • l  to impress on the perpetrator that what he or she has done is unacceptable
  • to deter the pupil from repeating that behaviour
  • to signal to other pupils that the behaviour is unacceptable and deter them from doing it

Schools should consider using a whole-school staff training session to ensure shared understanding of proportionate and differentiated sanctions and of the thresholds for their use for different misbehaviours. For example, to agree what are low-level misbehaviours, only requiring a quiet reprimand, and what are serious ones, which may require referral to senior staff and a range of intervention strategies.

Referral systems
Schools should ensure that they have appropriate systems for identifying which matters can be dealt with by any staff member with the power to discipline and which require referral to a more senior member of staff.

Referrals for assistance in a crisis situation in class can be based on using pupils to call for assistance or using IT or wireless systems. Schools should also work out protocols with local police and youth offending services, for use in serious incidents.

Depending on the nature of the incident and the circumstances of the individual pupil involved, a referral to senior staff might also involve: consultation with the parent; engagement with multi-agency staff; use of continual reporting systems (books, cards) for the pupil; and creation of a pastoral support programme (PSP), which is a school-based intervention to help individual pupils to manage their behaviour.

Guidance on PSPs

Schools should monitor the overall impact of their sanctions by age, ethnicity, gender, SEN, disability and any religious affiliation. This does not mean monitoring every individual sanction, but taking reasonable steps to ascertain whether overall any particular groups of pupils are disproportionately affected, as required as part of schools’ disability, race and gender equality schemes.

Any patterns revealed that raise concerns about the application of the policy against the principles can then drive changes to practice.

Schools should be aware that failure to monitor the use of sanctions in this way might leave them open to legal challenge.

There are a number of ways in which schools may choose to monitor pupils’ behaviour and the use of sanctions. They may use staff/pupil planners, wall charts or IT data recording systems — as a continual process or to monitor specific behaviour.

Both desirable and undesirable behaviour should be monitored, so that balanced evaluations can be reached. It can also identify common times and locations for issuing sanctions — and so identify where other interventions are needed to support staff.

Data gathered consistently, and analysed, can reinforce good news stories about school improvement; contribute to the school self-evaluation form; and inform discussions with staff, governors, pupils, parents and multi-agency staff about patterns of poor behaviour and steps taken to tackle them.

Sanctions are more likely to promote positive behaviour if pupils see them as being applied consistently and fairly. The guidelines to staff should therefore advise them to:

  • make clear they are dealing with the behaviour, rather than stigmatising the person
  • avoid: early escalation to severe sanctions; sanctions becoming cumulative and automatic; and whole group sanctions that punish the innocent as well as the guilty
  • use sanctions that are a logical consequence of the pupil’s inappropriate behaviour, that help the pupil and others to learn from mistakes and recognise how they can improve their behaviour, and that help to put right harm caused
  • never issue a sanction that is humiliating or degrading
  • use sanctions in a calm and controlled manner
  • ensure that sanctions are seen as inevitable and consistent
  • attempt to link the concept of sanctions to that of choice, so that pupils see the connection between their own behaviour and its effect on themselves and others, so increasingly taking responsibility for their own behaviour

Monitoring systems should be designed with staff workload in mind and should not be bureaucratic.

Other considerations
Sanctions should not be used where low-level interventions, such as giving a non-verbal signal or reminding a pupil of a rule, are all that is needed.

Staff should also consider when it might be more appropriate to, rather than impose a sanction, encourage pupils to reflect on the harmful effects of their misbehaviour, through producing a written account of the problem or through individual or group discussions aimed at repairing relationships.

Some schools use restorative approaches to tackle poor behaviour. The underlying principle is that pupils are held to account for their actions and encouraged to put right the harm caused. Restorative techniques can be effective when used correctly and when requisite time and resources are committed .

Staff should also consider, when using sanctions, whether an apparent behaviour difficulty is in fact a manifestation of unidentified learning difficulties or other type of SEN.

Examples of sanctions
It is for individual schools to determine what sanctions to use. Some suggestions are:

  •  one-to-one admonishment
  • removal from the group (in class)
  • withdrawal from a particular lesson or peer group
  • withdrawal of access to IT system (e.g. if the pupil misuses it by accessing an inappropriate website)
  • withholding participation in a school trip or sports event that is not an essential part of the curriculum
  • withdrawal of break or lunchtime privileges
  • carrying out a useful task in the school
  • a variety of forms of detention
  • fixed period or permanent exclusion

Misbehaviour outside school

Section 89(5) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives head teachers a power to regulate pupils’ behaviour when off school premises and not supervised by school staff to such extent as is reasonable.

Schools’ legal powers
While schools are able to regulate certain conduct off school premises, they can only impose sanctions when the pupil is on the school site or under the lawful control of a staff member.

  • So a sanction could be imposed whilst a pupil is on a school trip, but not whilst the pupil is on his or her journey home from school.
  • Staff could indicate to the pupil that s/he has been seen misbehaving and will be punished, but must wait until the pupil is next in school to issue the punishment.

What this means in practical terms

Effective disciplinary sanctions
An effective discipline policy should set expectations for positive behaviour off the school site, including work experience, educational visits and sporting events, behaviour on the way to and from school and behaviour when wearing school uniform (if any) in a public place.

Possible criteria for regulating off-site behaviour
Schools should be clear about factors to be taken into account in deciding whether a sanction is reasonable. Factors might include:

  • severity of the misbehaviour
  • how it affects the school’s reputation
  • if the pupil(s) were wearing uniform or were otherwise identifiable as members of the school
  •  whether the behaviour affects the orderly running of the school, or poses a threat other pupils or staff (e.g. bullying a pupil or insulting staff)
  • proximity of the misbehaviour to the school
  • if the misbehaviour might affect the chance of other pupils being offered similar work, study or sporting opportunities in the future.

Applying such factors, there would be a strong case for punishing a pupil for harassing a staff member off school premises, including through the internet, or for verbally abusing members of the public on a bus on the way to school.

The case would be much weaker for punishing a pupil for verbally abusing somebody who had no connection with the school at a weekend.

It may be helpful to relate factors used to a set of overall objectives that make clear why a policy regulating behaviour off school premises is necessary — to maintain order in public places, or to protect the school’s reputation, for example.

Communicating the rules on behaviour out of school
Schools should work with transport providers, local groups, retail staff, street wardens and police to establish clear communication and operational strategies. Staff, parents and pupils should be made aware of expectations and procedures. The guidance gives detailed practical examples of codes of conduct, ways to monitor conduct and problem-solving strategies for when incidents occur.

Abuse or intimidation of staff outside school
Heads should adopt firm measures against abuse or intimidation of staff, including unacceptable conduct when not on the school site. Staff should be made aware that they have the same rights of protection from threat as any citizen in a public place and that they should use their professional judgement about immediate action to take where a group of pupils may be using intimidating behaviour.

Promoting and rewarding good behaviour

It is important that schools strike the right balance between rewards and sanctions and rewarding consistently good behaviour versus improved behaviour.

The school discipline policy should specify how positive behaviour will be encouraged and reinforced through praise and rewards. There should be a rewards: sanctions ratio of at least 5:1 and all schools should have a wide range of rewards and sanctions, which are applied fairly and consistently.

This could include: frequent use of encouraging language or gestures; a system of merits and prizes incorporating ‘congratulations’ postcards and personalised letters to parents; ‘positive contributions to the school’ certificates; celebration assemblies, involving parents; and special privileges.

Praise and rewards can reinforce a school’s efforts to tackle one particular aspect of behaviour e.g. prejudice-driven bullying; or in particular situations, e.g. misbehaviour on journeys to and from school.

Praise and rewards may be for an individual pupil, whole class or year group. It is advisable to pay attention to those who have previously displayed poor behaviour or who have been less likely to meet standards, so that it is not always the same (‘good’) pupils who receive praise and rewards.

This can help improve relations with parents who are often contacted only when things go wrong. Staff should monitor any emerging patterns in relation to age, ethnicity, gender, SEN or disability and take appropriate action to avoid bias.

Move in the right direction

Most of the media interest in this guidance has been on this last section. But the guidance is a move in the right direction and is better viewed as a whole: a balanced approach to school discipline and behaviour that takes account of the whole school community.

It is hoped that for the majority of schools, it will just confirm their current practice.

Ingrid Sutherland is a solicitor, giving advice and training for the Advisory Centre for Education

Find out more
Download the new guidance from the policies section of Teachernet