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Conducting conduct

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ASCL member Sir Alan Steer, Head of Seven Kings High School, chaired the practitioner group on behaviour last autumn. Here he discusses some of the implications and shares how his own school has tackled behaviour.

In 1989, Lord Elton was asked by the government to chair an enquiry committee and to produce a report on school discipline. Sound familiar?

Last summer, having been appointed to chair a similar committee, I found my copy of Elton and read it once more. It is an excellent report and this is recognised by all experts in this field.

So why wasn't it more effective? Why did we need another group 16 years later? Why didn't the Elton report lead to more radical change in education? This is a question that should make us all shift uncomfortably in our seats.

Elton correctly saw that there are no simple solutions when addressing behaviour issues in schools and society. It is a complex matter. Different schools and different teachers will face different challenges.

The practitioner group I chaired agreed with Elton. Simplistic solutions will not be found in our report Learning Behaviour. However it is our firm belief that all schools have the power to raise standards and that there is a moral obligation for this to happen in the interests of the children.

Of the terms of reference given to our group, the most significant related to identifying good behavioural practice in schools which could be enhanced and shared with others. This constituted about 50 per cent of our work.

We can't duck the issue of what to do when things go wrong - that would be to live in the comfort world - but identifying preventative strategies must be the most intelligent way to progress.

Are things really worse?

So is the situation worse now, is it better, or is it simply different? David Bell's September 2005 HMCI annual report actually indicated a marginal improvement in standards of behaviour. Bournemouth University has reported recently that their research indicates that behaviour is now better than it was in 1985.

Not everyone would agree. Every professional association submission we received took the view that behaviour was getting worse in schools - and I'm not going to challenge that view even though it is very difficult in this whole area to identify hard evidence.

What is certain is that the situation has changed. Mobile phones, for instance, are a social development that are having an adverse effect. Schools also have to operate in the context of social attitudes.

However, the exercise of authority is viewed very differently today than 30 years ago. Nostalgia for the past should be balanced with the realisation that in many ways attitudes have changed for the better!

Misbehaviour among the young has existed in the past and will exist in the future - despite our report. Children by definition are learning. Childhood is a time of uncertainty and insecurity when mistakes are made. Good behaviour needs to be taught and it particularly needs to be modelled by the adult world.

The great majority of schools deal very successfully with issues of social behaviour. The majority of pupils are as delightful as they ever were and the vast majority of teachers are very skilled, hardworking professionals. We were keen to stress this, because it is a truth. We do not do the debate any good if we panic and embrace disaster.

Bad behaviour cannot be tolerated. However it is our job as educators to change things for the better. When the focus is just on identifying who is to blame, it doesn't lead to solutions.

There is a discernible pressure for behaviour strategies to be 'tough'. On occasions school actions certainly have to be firm and uncompromising, but my personal aspiration for schools is that they exercise 'tough, intelligent, love'.

Power to discipline

Of the 72 recommendations contained in our report, we were delighted that 19 of them were included within the education bill 2006. One that has caught attention is the recommendation that the right to discipline be clarified through new legislation. This was a recommendation of the Elton report in 1989 which the government at the time didn't pursue.

Until now, many of teachers' rights to discipline have been based on case law. For instance, the right to confiscate an item from a student comes from the case of Fitzgerald v Northcote in 1865.

Our group was persuaded that clarifying this area in an increasingly litigious age would be good in itself, as would the process of carrying through new legislation.

We did not believe that there was sufficient awareness among teachers, educators and parents of what rights teachers had to impose discipline. We viewed it as essential that all those participants understood their rights and responsibilities and the rights and responsibilities of others.

Our hope was that all parties would accept that teachers do have rights of discipline, and that they should only be challenged if they are unreasonably applied.

I will now return to my assessment as to why the Elton report did not make the impact it deserved. I have been a teacher for 35 years and am very proud of the teaching profession. However we are a conservative profession, perhaps like all professions.

A major reason why the Elton report did not change things was because schools were not sufficiently open to change. We cannot improve standards of behaviour in our schools without some adjustments to our working practices.

Consistency is key

We have got to make consistency a sexy concept rather than a boring word. Professionalism needs to be defined with a collegiate team mentality, rather than mere individualism.

Each school needs to identify what it is that staff will agree to do as a consistent practice, subjugating their individualism in order to be more effective and mutually supportive. I think that currently we don't get it right.

Children need consistency if they are to learn and to learn good behaviour. Baseline good practice, having been identified and agreed, must then be implemented.

Approached intelligently, consistency provides security for the pupil while still leaving the opportunity for the teacher to exercise professional creativity above that baseline level.

Learning, teaching and behaviour are inseparable issues. What takes place in the classroom should drive everything else. Lord Elton, in 1989, said that 80 per cent of low-level disruption arose from issues about classroom management and the quality of teaching. The situation has not changed.

At Seven Kings High School, the learning and teaching policy is a 'must do' document. It identifies the practices which all teachers follow in order to support each other and ensure a consistent high quality experience for our pupils. Introduced in 1990, now it is adapted every year by the staff and is owned by them - an example of collegiate professionalism!

The second half of our school learning and teaching policy concentrates on assessment for learning (AFL), about which I am absolutely passionate.

AFL is at the centre of good pedagogical development. Used consistently and concentrated on those practices that create good learning and teaching, it engages pupils in real participation in their own learning. Engaged pupils are more likely to display good standards of behaviour.

When talking about student voice we should primarily be referring to student voice in the lesson - and it should not have to stop there. At Seven Kings we recently had a staff training session in the school hall where teaching staff worked with the same number of students on identifying what constituted a good lesson.

Single most effective idea

Consistency between schools and between sectors is equally important. In primary schools it is normal for teachers to have seating plans in a classroom. In secondary schools practice is varied.

It has been argued that the most effective single thing to raise standards of behaviour in secondary schools is to have an effective seating plan.

It is the job of the class teacher to manage the teaching area so that a learning environment is created. With a seating plan, situations do not occur where students are controlling the classroom and the teacher is being reactive.

In most schools and for most pupils, behaviour reflects the quality of the school experience received. Unfortunately this is not always the case and some pupils require a high level of support. The practitioner group report provides alternatives to the sole use of sanctions.

One of the most significant of our group's recommendations is that all schools be enabled to have a parent/pupil support worker. The group envisaged schools employing suitably skilled professionals who would work alongside teachers in supporting the most vulnerable and challenging families.

This ambition reflects our view that the aspirations of Every Child Matters will not be met without some re-organisation within schools.

There is much excellent work taking place in the world of behaviour management and training. Teachers should be very proud of their achievements and the impact they make on the lives of their pupils.

In the letter to the minister at the beginning of the Learning Behaviour report we said that we felt optimistic and aspirational. If we accept the professional challenge, it is in our powers to change our schools for the better and in doing so enrich the lives of young people.

Sir Alan Steer has been Headteacher since 1985 of Seven Kings High School, a comprehensive school with 1,360 pupils on roll serving a multi-racial area of London.

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