In an extract from his book, Making School Work, headteacher Andy Buck describes how he views the challenge of shaping a climate for learning at Jo Richardson Community School

The creation of a positive climate for learning is a prerequisite to a school’s success. In schools with good behaviour, students learn more effectively. Where, by contrast, staff spend too much time trying to maintain discipline, the school will not be as effective in attracting and keeping the best staff. This can result in a downward spiral.

Effective behaviour management is underpinned by consistency, clear systems and shared understanding. The challenge for school leaders lies in the process through which one translates these aspirations into the reality of daily life in school.

Key principles

These are some of the key principles that should underpin a school’s behaviour policies:

Share understanding
Students, staff and parents need to have a clear understanding of the school’s expectations. Without this clarity there will tend to be conflict, as each party makes different assumptions about what is acceptable and what is not. This inevitably means that a school needs to develop a series of routines and procedures that cover all aspects of school life.

There is always the danger that the whole school community becomes overwhelmed by the sheer number of rules and regulations. It is important to get the balance right. One way around this is to have a set of over-arching principles that underpin the way the school operates. The notion of mutual respect is as good a place to start as any.

Once the overall expectations have been agreed, the next step is to then break this down into more specific areas. For example, using a series of levels to define positive and negative behaviours, and how a school should respond to them, can create clarity around how situations can be dealt with.

The first level may relate to issues usually dealt with by the class teacher or form tutor. The second may relate to something more significant that should be rewarded or punished by someone more senior, such as the head of department or pastoral team leader. For highly significant issues, referral might be made to a member of the school’s senior team at the third level.

Once this clear series of principles has been developed, members of the school community find it easier to then apply them to the range of circumstances they find themselves in. Where schools have got this right, students can usually guess what the consequence or outcome will be, even though they may not be too keen on having it applied to them!

Keep it consistent
Once the overall policy framework has been agreed, the next challenge is to achieve ‘buy-in’ from staff, students and students. An important part of this process is to involve staff, students and parents in the development of the policies.

The next stage is communicating what has been agreed. For staff, this will involve the implementation of an effective training programme. This training should form an essential part of any new member of staff’s induction programme. A simplified version could also be made available for visiting staff such as supply teachers, student teachers or even work experience students. There should also be clearly explained documentation in the school’s staff handbook that outlines how the systems and routines are expected to work.

Running alongside this, there should be clear information made available to parents that explains how the school’s systems work. Many schools issue a handbook to parents when students start at a school that covers all the key areas. The most effective schools will make sure there is a direct and regular channel to update policies when they change.

Keep it positive
Any behaviour policy should have at its core a positive approach to managing behaviour. All of us respond well to praise, so long as the context is carefully chosen. For some, there is nothing better than explicit public acknowledgement of their achievements. For others, the quiet or private word is more appropriate.

If school staff show students they care about them and value what they contribute, not just in lessons but also in the wider school context, than students will feel differently about being at school.

Make personal time
For some students, just coping with school is a major challenge, whether this is the result of a student’s personal circumstances or home life, or just a feeling that school seems to be all about displaying one’s inadequacies for everyone to see. A school that takes its climate for learning seriously cannot ignore these students: they are the group most likely to challenge the school’s behaviour expectations.

It should be clear to all concerned that the systems must be followed fairly for all students, no matter what the challenges certain individual students may be facing. At the same time, it is incumbent upon the school to provide appropriate personal support for such students to enable them to eventually meet the required standards.

The nature of the support provided will depend on the individual situation. For some, an input from their form tutor might be all that’s needed. For others, support from someone such as a learning mentor who has more dedicated time to give may be the answer. For some, a period of time out of mainstream lessons in a supportive environment that will help to rebuild their capacity to function appropriately in lessons will help. For others, who have the greatest need, outside agencies such as social services or child and family support may be the only way forward.

Timing is everything
Praise and sanction need to be implemented fairly quickly. Students need to see the link between action and reaction in order to make the appropriate connection. A student who can’t remember why he or she is on detention is far more likely to carry out the same misdemeanour again. It is also particularly important for any punishment to be carried out quickly to enable the student to move forward. Restoration of a positive relationship between a child and a member of staff will always be more difficult if the punishment is still to be served.

A delay in rewarding a student for something is less of a problem but should also be avoided where possible. Apart form maximising the impact for the student by making a clear connection between the act and the reward, it is equally important to ensure that staff live up to student expectations of how the reward system should be operated.

Environment matters
Schools need to be aware of the subliminal messages the school environment transmits to its students. If the buildings and grounds are well cared for, student-centred and well organised, then students’ attitudes will be that little bit more positive. Involving the student council in decisions about how space could be redesigned is always a good idea.

Learn from experience
Any set of behaviour policies need to have an active feedback loop. Most of the good and bad things that happen in school will be covered by a school’s behaviour policy. From time to time, however, something will happen that’s never happened before, an unbounded event, not covered by the school’s policies. When this occurs, there needs to be a decision about how to proceed. This is when the core set of principles underpinning the detailed policies become important. These should be the basis for the decision.

A reflective school will update its behaviour policy to take account of the unbounded event, turning it into a bounded event. This ensures consistency should the event happen again in the future, taking away from senior staff the need to remember what they did last time or to rethink how to approach the situation from scratch.

Monitoring the climate

It makes sense for schools to have some way of measuring how good their climate for learning is. The measures that schools can use include:

  • Attendance and punctuality data – if a school’s attendance is rising, there is a good chance it is because students feel happier and more secure about coming to school.
  • Feedback from questionnaire data – make sure there are questions which relate to aspects of the climate for learning, such as attitudes to learning, staff expectations of students, the school’s effectiveness at dealing with bullying, whether lessons are interesting and whether students are rewarded and punished fairly.
  • Exclusion rates – how many students have been excluded? If a school’s system has been broken down into different levels, how many are there at each level? How do these figures compare over time? With other local schools? What does this tell us about how well the policies are working?

It is tempting to assume that, when the climate for learning appears to be in decline, there needs to be a radical change in policy. It is more likely that the problem lies in the inconsistent application or poor understanding of the policies. What is probably needed is a period of intensive engagement with staff, students and parents about how the systems are meant to work.

Summary

  • Creating a successful climate for learning involves the complex mix of policies to promote a positive general ethos, with some very specific, shared, concrete systems that are needed to underpin and facilitate the smooth running of a school.
  • An approach that is shared, understood, seen as fair, while supporting of all members of the school and its wider community to fulfil their goals is at the very heart of the school with an effective climate for learning.
  • Placing student responsibility at the heart of your policies is essential.
  • Make sure senior staff are seen as high profile exemplifications of the school’s behaviour systems.
  • Build levels into your systems so that all staff take responsibility for managing behaviour. Don’t let situations escalate to the senior team too fast.
  • Make sure the systems you establish are manageable and have appropriate administrative support.
  • Keep it positive. Remind staff all the time about the importance of looking to praise.
  • Make sure your systems build in personal time for students, whatever the context.
  • Working with other agencies, but be careful that the school doesn’t start to take responsibility for areas outside its remit.

This is an edited extract from Making School Work: A Practical Approach to Secondary School Leadership by Andy Buck, with John Bradshaw, Janet Heywood, Lisa Keane, Val Simpson and Ges Smith. It is published by Greenwich Exchange Publishing (www.greenex.co.uk) at £11.99.

To find out more about Jo Richardson Community School, take a look at www.jrcs.bardaglea.org.uk

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