A school environment of confidence and respect can raise achievement and emotional literacy. Hazel Pulley, headteacher of Caldecote Community Primary School in Leicester, discusses how she did this in an amalgamated school

Caldecote Community Primary School was formed in September 2001 from the amalgamation of an infant and a junior school in a predominantly white area of Leicester with high rates of crime and drug use.

Among the challenges we faced were:

  • low staff morale
  • low levels of confidence among children
  • a large amount of conflict in the playground
  • ineffectual or missing structures for managing behaviour.

The two schools were very different in the way they were run: one was quite autocratic, the other more open. So I knew that pulling the two together was not going to be easy. I also saw the amalgamation as a platform to develop some new ways of thinking.

Establishing a vision
The first step was to establish a sense of common purpose that could shared by all stakeholders. So, the term before the school opened, I worked with the staff, community and governors to develop a vision for the school.

The staff and I felt that, if we went out into the community with a blank canvas, we would get so many differences that it would be impossible to pull them together. So we came up with three alternative vision statements that we could put out to the community.

In the event, the statement they chose was not the one that I actually wanted. This was really hard for me. I probably could have ‘fiddled’ it. Instead, I went with what had been chosen:

Caldecote Community Primary School is a community working together for quality and partnership, promoting self-esteem and respect through education.

I am so glad I did. My experience as a headteacher is that you should go with the message you receive; not what you think is right. The fact that the vision has worked so well is a testament to this.

Building self-esteem
We knew that children’s self-esteem would need to be addressed if teaching and learning were going to improve.

To achieve this, we started by asking pupils what they would like to see in school that would make them feel proud. Using this as a starting point, we went on to develop a number of reward schemes: some were individual rewards for the needs of a particular child and some rewards gave a class the chance to work together as a team.

We wanted to get across to children that, to get equality for all, we would need some inequality: one child might need more individual help to get to the stage that others were already at. This was a difficult case to make.

Behaviour policy
We then looked at what happens when children do not make the right choices. This required us to review the different approaches to behaviour management that had been adopted in the two schools.

The first thing we looked at was the language that staff were using. We wanted to move beyond the idea of ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ behaviour, and to talk instead about choices. We all make choices in our lives: some are right choices and some are wrong choices.

We wanted to keep the child at the centre of what we did, so as to build and sustain their self-esteem and ensure they felt good about themselves. We tell children that what we don’t like is certain behaviour they choose to do. We talk to children about these choices and say: ‘That was the wrong choice to climb up that tree when everyone else was coming back to class. How can you make a right choice?’ From this platform, you seek to give  the child a license to change. This sort of terminology is now so embedded within our school that even the community uses these words.

Leadership style Although I took a collegiate approach to some things, and encouraged people to be open about what they needed, I was quite autocratic when shaping the actions that people needed to take.

So strong was my desire to establish a consistent approach to behaviour across the whole school that I found myself actually writing scripts for staff. Many mid-day supervisors would say ‘I know what you mean but I don’t know what to say’; so I scripted responses for them to use: those responses have now become automatic. The vocabulary and words we use are a crucial part of our techniques for de-escalating extreme behaviour.

Behaviour mentors
Another element in our strategy for addressing behaviour was the appointment of a support team of two behaviour mentors. This made it possible to remove a child from the class when their behaviour became unacceptable. It was important that this was done ‘officially’, rather than through the child choosing to storm out.

This recognised that children sometimes need time out from highly emotional situations, time to calm down so that they can think about the choices they want to make. So we have a system where the teacher can give a time out card, and a teaching assistant will take them to our ‘den’. This is a brightly coloured room, run by a behaviour mentor, which we created specifically for this purpose. The mentor works with the child and helps them to make the right choice before returning the child back to class.

An important element in this process is that the child is greeted by the teacher when they return. This is something staff have found hard at times. Some asked whether it was really necessary for them to welcome a child back after they had just sworn and thrown a chair at them. The reason I felt this was so important was because, for a child to be able to get on with their learning, they need to still feel valued. It is difficult for a child to walk back into a class when things have gone wrong and the teacher can take this feeling away by acknowledging the child.

This is something I monitor. If I pick up it isn’t happening, then I will have a dialogue with that teacher. The time out cards are a good way for us to monitor a child’s behaviour and work out if there are any specific triggers we need to anticipate.

We have now got to the stage where the children have become sufficiently self-aware to recognise when they need time out. So they are starting to ask for a time out card before they lose control of their feelings. We think this is an enormous step forward, as there are many adults who do not have this self-awareness.

No exclusions
Two years ago, we made the decision to stop exclusions. When you exclude children you are starting to write them off. We will educate any child, except for the seriously violent.

We started the implementation of this policy by internally excluding pupils. I turned my office, which was the only room with its own toilet, into the exclusion room.

We now have no exclusions at all, even though the school is in a very challenging area. People walk into this school expecting to see very challenging behaviour and they don’t see any.

I monitor weekly how much praise and sanctions each teacher gives out to make sure there is consistency: children can quickly see unfairness. As I don’t have an office, I live round the school and I can see what is happening all the time. I’m very much on my feet and I can pick up in a minute when an approach to a child is inappropriate.

We use an acronym called ADA which stands for Attitude, Demeanour and Approaches. This comes from a book by Clive Street called Managing Schools in the Community. I’ve found this a really good way to address problems sensitively. I can say to a teacher ‘I think ADA needs a bit of polishing’ and they will say ‘Yes, I’ve got a really stinking headache today’. This allows you to get to the root of the problem quickly without causing any offence.

Flat leadership structure
When I started this post, it was my fourth headship in an inner-city school and I think my confidence as a headteacher has helped me enormously. But I believe it is about the whole school leading. We have a flat leadership structure: there is no senior leadership team. Instead, we have strategic leadership groups which change so that everyone who wants to take part in leadership has the opportunity.

Our most recent Ofsted report (Inspection no 315969) in February 2008 commented that:

Staff are increasingly effective with the strategies they use that lead to improvements in achievement. They are particularly effective in helping overcome the considerable social, emotional and behavioural difficulties experienced by some pupils. Relationships between adults and pupils are extremely good and are significant in helping pupils to settle to work, along with the effective way in which unacceptable behaviour is managed.

Philosophy for Children
Philosophy for Children (P4C) is one of the approaches used by Caldecote Primary. This gives pupils throughout the school regular opportunities to explore music, artefacts, pictures and stories and question and develop their ideas through a philosophical enquiry. As the pupils become more experienced in these activities they challenge each other’s ideas, learn to agree and disagree with others and formulate and debate increasingly complex ideas with confidence and fluency.

If you had visited the school in 2001, you would have felt intimidated by the children and shocked by the grey drabness of the building. Now, you are more likely to feel welcomed and to see a calm atmosphere, with children happy in their learning. We can now go on school trips and have discos, because children’s behaviour is sufficiently under control.

We haven’t achieved all of our goals: attendance still needs to improve and standards are not yet at the level we would like them to be. But we believe we now have the structures in place that will enable us to reach these goals.

Caldecote Community Primary School

Hazel Pulley is a past national leader of education and a school improvement partner in Leicester and Birmingham

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