’Zero tolerance’ is a phrase increasingly used in response to challenging behaviour – but what are the likely benefits and the possible consequences of such an approach?

While possibly running the risk of raising fixed-term exclusions, and thereby having a negative effect on any formal assessment the school may be faced with (ie, the self-evaluation form and Ofsted), a zero tolerance approach towards unacceptable behaviour can certainly make positive changes to behaviour problems in the classroom and a climate of failure and low expectations.

Given the present working of the system and with the threat of a poor Ofsted assessment hanging over them, schools are increasingly finding ways to avoid excluding pupils by using ‘internal exclusion’ and providing on-site facilities for these pupils. Although they have been successful in reducing exclusion figures, and in many cases have had a positive effect on disruptive behaviour, these measures and style of approach can place intense pressure on school budgets, timetables and staff morale.

Before undertaking a zero tolerance approach, schools have reported that students have reported that the most frustrating part of school was being disrupted by other students’ poor behaviour in the classroom and around the school site. Taking the radical step of introducing a zero tolerance policy can demonstrate that you are serious about student behaviour issues and are in fact putting the interests of the majority before the difficulties of those who push the boundaries.

However, this is an approach which may not suit all. Establishing clearly understood values and communicating them to all stakeholders (including parents and carers) requires the school to identify non-negotiable behaviour expected from all its students. Understanding of non-negotiable behaviour must also be promoted with total consistency by all teaching and non-teaching staff.

Practical Tips
As with all pieces of advice or styles of approach, it is clearly up to individual schools to make careful assessments of their needs and capacity to implement programmes before embarking on such a system, and as with all advice it is there to be discussed and acted on only if it is considered right for the individual school or situation.

Careful consideration should be given to a range of issues, such as:

  • honest and accurate self assessment. (Why is the school considering this approach? How effective are current systems?)
  • staff training to ensure consistency and a thorough understanding of non-negotiable behaviour and how indeed to respond to such behaviour
  • parental understanding, acceptance and support
  • a thorough understanding of roles and responsibilities among teaching and non teaching staff.

Some very practical considerations reported by schools implementing this approach have included:

  • The head teacher and senior leadership teams should identify a clear set of values which should in turn be communicated to staff, pupils and parents in the form of actions and words.
  • Staff should be told how to treat all students – for example, greeting at the start of lessons, speaking calmly instead of shouting, and rewarding and encouraging instead of being negative.
  • In the early weeks of implementing such an approach, there should be a highly visible presence of senior leaders in corridors and classrooms.
  • The immediate focus should be to stabilise behaviour to a point where classrooms were sufficiently calm enough for teachers to teach.

With approach adopted to manage or change behaviour there will be some inherent dangers. A totally inflexible style of approach can, if not carefully monitored, lead to some difficult and unwanted situations. A pupil who finds himself or herself within the system may receive a fixed-term exclusion simply through an accumulation of failing to attend a detention, and the fixed-term exclusion could lead to something far more serious if the next stages of the school’s zero tolerance are firmly adhered to, ie, a parent or carer fails to attend compulsory school meeting before student can return to school.

Hopefully the issues raised in this article will be worth considering if you are faced with a school climate of unsatisfactory behaviour or endemic bullying. However, don’t forget the need to critically analyse your current systems and styles of approach before launching into a whole new style – which may be difficult to implement given the current capacity.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2009

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.