Education writer and former headteacher Gerald Haigh shows how ICT can be used to track pupils’ behaviour and create good, quantitative evidence on which to base action.

The first requirement for any programme of school improvement is the gathering of detailed information about what’s going on. One of the best statements regarding this was made by American executive Louis Gerstner, who took over, and eventually transformed, IBM when it was on its knees in the early 1990s.

‘Good strategies,’ he said, ‘start with massive amounts of quantitative analysis, hard, difficult analysis that is blended with wisdom, insight and risk taking.’

Today’s school leaders well understand that. They accept that the intelligent collection and reading of the mass of data accruing from assessment can be the key to real improvement in teaching and learning.

But what about behaviour? Is there the same concentration on data collection and analysis? That’s been a bit slower to develop. It’s been generally perceived as more difficult to be objective about behaviour. To put it simply, you can’t give children half-termly behaviour tests, recording the results in a central database.

Remember, though, what Louis Gerstner said – quantitative analysis yes, but ‘blended with wisdom, insight and risk taking’. Teachers can understand the limits within which data is collected and have the insight to interpret it, and the courage to act on what it’s telling them. Many schools have worked on ways of recording and analysing incidents, gathering information to develop ways of  improving  school behaviour.

Finding the patterns

How does that work? Here’s Sam, for example, working with Mr Johnson, doing history in a temporary classroom on campus. In mutinous mood, Sam leans back and provokes a confrontation by refusing to work: ‘I’m not doing this stuff!’

You don’t want Sam to behave like that – and, of course, you’ve given Mr Johnson the wherewithal to deal with it. But if you’re interested in improving behaviour across the school, you don’t want Sam’s behaviour to come and go unremarked. You’d like to know how this incident fits into an overall pattern.

Various questions come to mind, of which these comprise only a sample:

  • Is Mr Johnson having particular trouble with Sam?
  • Is Mr Johnson having trouble with a group, of which Sam is a member?
  • Do all the history staff have trouble with his group?
  • Does Sam’s group behave worse in the temporary classrooms?
  • Does everyone behave worse in these classrooms?

You’ll think of other possibilities, but you get the idea.

If you can get the answers to questions like these – and, more important, support your judgements with a robust record of incidents that show the patterns, then a number of possibilities arise including:

  • comparing your data on pupil attainment – individuals, groups – with your data on behaviour
  • helping Mr Johnson to see the nature of his problem
  • showing parents the facts about Sam’s conduct
  • convincing history staff that maybe they need to think about teaching styles and curriculum content
  • showing the site manager and the authority that there’s a real educational case for improving the temporary classrooms
  • providing hard evidence for governors in a pupil disciplinary case.

Using the evidence base

So when you translate these possibilities into action, it becomes possible to put resources into specific problems, which is a lot more productive and professional than just lining people up and telling them to behave. Don’t forget, either, that if you also record incidents of praiseworthy behaviour, you have evidence that can support your work on spreading good practice around the school.

Lots of schools have done this without the help of management software, often by a system of recording incidents on paper forms that are sent off to a central point. That kind of paper trail, though, no matter how carefully devised, is always going to be either unwieldy or lacking in detail. There are many schools that faithfully collect behaviour reports, only to find that they pile up in filing cabinets .

The DfES Teachernet website has a case study that tells a familiar story:
‘The school’s processes for recording disciplinary events are largely manual. The school therefore maintains a series of discrete recording systems in different parts of the school and information is collected and recorded in many different ways. It is time-consuming to compile and update pupil records, and information about assessments, disciplinary events, academic and pastoral events was not easily accessible to other members of staff.’

Of course, you can do better than that, even with a paper system, but this is a task that’s ready-made for ICT. That’s because ICT makes it so much easier to handle a mass of information. Applying this to the recording of behaviour opens up many possibilities for analysis and for making your data more accessible.

How does it work?

Systems vary, but essentially your computer screen presents you with a form to record a behaviour incident. Typically, the form will offer 15 or so incidents for the teacher to choose from – such as ‘Homework not done’, ‘Stopping others from working’ and ‘Verbal threat to teacher’. Importantly, although the software will offer a large selection of these, the school can edit them to suit its own priorities. There’s also room for comments.

In some schools the teacher will complete the form on her own laptop or workstation – which is the procedure to aim at. In others, a paper slip is still used, and passed to someone else – an administrator perhaps – for entry into the software. After that, the software crunches the data, and offers you a large selection of possibilities for getting the information out. So you can look at all similar incidents, all incidents in a particular subject, or with a particular teacher, or involving a particular child. You can break it all down by gender, age group, class, tutor group. And you can have lists, or various kinds of graphs, and in some cases there are pre-digested letters to parents. The sky’s the limit. All of it, of course, can be edited to your requirements.

So, for example, when Sam’s parents come in to see you, they can look over your shoulder while you call up on the screen not only that incident, but all of the other incidents in which Sam has been involved recently.

‘I appreciate that you feel Mr Johnson’s picking on Sam,’ you say. ‘But if you look here you’ll see five similar incidents in the past month, all with other teachers. You’ll see, too, that three of the incidents happened last week, which seems to show that things are getting worse. Here you can see that Sam’s year head interviewed him last Friday, and that we wrote to you after that. I can print out a copy of the letter if you didn’t get it.’

That’s at one level. Now here are some conversations that might take place within the school:

  • ‘Hi Joe, I’ve been looking at the incidents you’ve reported with Sam Noggin and Sam’s partners in crime. They’re not angels, but I have to say you seem to have had more than your share of trouble with them lately. I guess we need to see how we can help you.’
  • ‘What is it about that history room? It’s not just Sam Noggin – other people seem to have more trouble in it than they do in other places. Is it the ventilation? Does it have the wrong vibes because of who taught in it last year? Jack, I want you to sit in on some lessons there and see what you think.’
  • ‘So, if you look at these figures and compare them with Ann’s observations, you’ll see that this particular group plays up much more when they’re asked to work from a textbook. Let’s put that in front of the department and see if they can think of ways of getting the children’s noses out of the book and into something more stimulating.’
  • ‘There are lots of “homework not done” reports coming in. I reckon that means we need to look at the homework policy. We need to talk to the departments, the parent governors, and the students themselves, of course, and see if we need a rethink.’
  • ‘I’m just pulling together a list of the incidents involving Sam, ready for a meeting with the ed psych.’

You may say: ‘Surely we know that already from just simple observation?’ That’s true. But what the ICT gives us is good quantitative evidence – dates, descriptions, frequencies. You can see – and show  others in simple lists or graphs, the when, where, who and how often. All of this immeasurably strengthens your case in meetings with teachers, department heads, individual children, parents, governors and inspectors.

 One final story. Long ago, I was a senior member of staff in a large comprehensive. The head, disturbed by what he saw as a deterioration in discipline, sent round a memo admonishing everyone for letting things slide. He instructed us to – and I remember the exact words – ‘Be generally a bit menacing for a time.’

How helpful was that? I, for one, had no idea what it was to be ‘menacing’. ‘Maybe we should wear scary wigs and cackle a lot,’ suggested one of my colleagues.

Systems

First, examine your existing MIS (Sims, Facility, Integris, whichever it is) to see if it will do it. That’s always the starting point before buying extra software. It’s important, incidentally, to talk to your authority MIS support team about software as well as to your behaviour support or curriculum people. They’re not always on the same page of the hymn book.

Other systems include.

Don’t forget to look at Becta’s pages on management information systems: www.becta.org.uk

Behaviour tracking: key points

Tidy up your behaviour policy before you start. The software won’t tidy it up for you. Poor data going in produces misleading information coming out.

Consistency is obviously important – you’ll worry that one teacher will over-report and another one will ignore incidents. But that’s always a problem, regardless of the system in use – and schools find that intelligent use of the software (Louis Gerstner’s ‘wisdom and insight’) will help you identify these differences.

The software won’t improve behaviour. It will give you detailed information to support what you’re doing.

It can’t replace professional judgement. In fact, it demands more of it as you:

  • tackle problem teaching
  • face parents with their children’s behaviour
  • investigate why a child has a particular problem on Wednesdays
  • investigate why everyone seems to go mad on Thursday period 4
  • investigate why Room 21 has more behaviour incidents in it than any other space in the school
  • formulate whole-school positive responses to the information that’s revealed.

Include good behaviour as well as bad. Some schools do this by simply including examples of good behaviour among the list of incidents. 

Whatever system you choose, work with the supplier to make sure that it suits your particular circumstances. Don’t readily accept any suggestion that something can’t be done.