Archive for June, 2007

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The Second Law of Behaviour Management

June 26, 2007

A first day coup d’etat from which there was no turning back, was essential. And it would indeed be a coup d’etat, a toppling from power. In the past it was the kids who ran Eastside [School]. They had the power. They set the tone, and the tone they set was chaos. They acted and administrators reacted. Very soon, power at Eastside would change hands.

Joe Clark (1989)

The Second Law of Behaviour Management is: It’s all about power. We need to accept that almost all poor behaviour at secondary schools is for only one purpose. It is an attempt by the individual who is misbehaving to grasp for themselves power over others. The disruptive child is seeking to demonstrate their power over their classmates’ learning. The lazy child is seeking to assert their power over the activities of the lesson. The argumentative child is seeking to assert their power over the adult they are arguing with. The bullying child is attempting to assert their power over their victims (be they staff or students). This motive is the be all and end all of how teenagers behave when they aren’t behaving. Other alleged motives – attention seeking, low self-esteem, fear of failure – are nothing compared with this one. Human beings are naturally hierarchical and school children, who are almost human, want to find their place in the hierarchy.

There may once have been a time, or a school, where the formal hierarchy of teachers and prefects was the most important one. There are still schools where academic achievement contributes to the hierarchy. However, more than anything we now have a situation where the overwhelming culture in our schools incorporates a hierarchy based on what one can get away with, where the worst students can get away with everything and the teachers can get away with nothing. What is done about behaviour must change the power relationships involved or it will make no difference at all. This makes a difference at every level of the education system.

The Classroom Teacher:

The classroom teacher must be at the top of the hierarchy in their own classroom. Partly this is a matter of style. Teachers should not be running around the classroom at the students’ beck and call. They should not be handing out pencils. They should not be helping students’ find the page in their textbooks. The teacher should not ask what the class wants to do. The teacher must shape the class not the other way around. Most of all teachers should never collaborate with students’ hierarchy. Ringleaders must be put in their place and not appeased. The teacher must rule on what is to be discussed in the classroom not join in when the children are chatting. Teachers must never indulge the prejudices, the low expectations and the bullying on the part of students.

School Managers:

Exclusions should be informed by the very simple principle that if any child is seen to be immune from the consequences of their actions then they will be able to force students and staff alike to confirm to their expectations. More importantly, the authority of teachers must be supported by every action of management. No more moving poorly behaved pupils around on the basis of “personality clashes”, no more encouraging teachers to punish less and build relationships with the worst behaved children. Most of all the word of a teacher must be taken over the word of a student every time. The culture of the school should reflect the hierarchy. All adults should be addressed as “Sir” or “Miss” at all times. In secondary schools it might even be time to return to the practice of calling students by their surnames.

As well as behaviour policy other aspects of school management should limit the opportunities for students to form their own pecking order. Break and lunchtime should be as short as possible and staggered to limit the amount of students who are out of lessons together. Setting policy should try to keep students away from the same limited peer group in lesson after lesson by setting across entire years, or even between years, in as many subjects as possible. Academic achievement and character should be rewarded more than any other achievement by students.

LEAs and Government:

There must be an end to countless appeals and obstructions when students are excluded. A teacher’s word must be enough. Warm word initiatives on bullying emerging from central government and LEAs should be replaced with clear sanctions for schools to use against bullies. Schools with a culture which discriminates against the academically able should be shut down as they serve no purpose. There must be an end to all initiatives that seek to increase the power of students. No more kids on interview panels. If school councils exist they should be part of a process of holding students to account, not getting students to interfere with the running of the school. No more deprofessionalisation of teachers.

Of course the things I’ve just suggested will be controversial. They are authoritarian. They seek to place the adult and the expert above the juvenile and ignorant. However, my argument is entirely based on the fact that in the absence of a hierarchy based on age, position and wisdom we won’t have an egalitarian culture of equals, we have another hierarchy, this time with the worst elements in control, where teachers and well behaved students live in fear.

References:

Clark, Joe, Laying Down the Law, 1989, Regenery Gateway

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Meanwhile, Elsewhere in the Education System

June 17, 2007

I’ve met up with a number of friends over the last few weeks. It does happen occasionally. I don’t spend all my time teaching or complaining about teaching online. Sometimes I get a spare half day to meet up with friends in the real world.

Obviously when we do meet up we just end up talking about teaching*.

Two of my friends are currently PHD students, both studying science-based subjects. One of them is at a top university, another at a middle ranking one. Both of them spend at least some of their time teaching undergraduates. Both have seen a noticeable change in student attitudes since they were undergraduates themselves. The newer intakes expect to be told every little thing. They are lost if they are not spoon-fed every detail of their assignments. They are shocked if they are asked to think something over, their stock response being “you’re the teacher, you tell me” and sometimes they even say something along the lines of “I paid to come here, so you should just tell me”. Of course, for those of us engaged in school teaching there is no mystery as to where these attitudes have come from. They have been spoon-fed for years and are not prepared for when it stops, and they are less and less likely to have done really demanding academic work at A-level thanks to dumbing down.

Another friend I met up with is herself a teacher in a bog standard comprehensive. She told me about an incident that happened at her school. A girl in year 11 had brought a bottle of poppers (presumably amyl nitrate) into school and kept them in her coat pocket. When she went into her drama lesson she threw her coat onto the back of a chair, breaking the bottle and spilling its contents directly in front of the room’s heater. This resulted in the entire class being subjected to fumes and becoming slightly confused and disorientated (although knowing teenagers maybe this was unconnected to the fumes). When it was discovered what had happened the entire class had to be carted off to accident and emergency because the unknown nature of what they’d breathed in. Of course, drugging an entire class got the girl responsible excluded. For three days. This ludicrously lenient punishment is surprising even for the school concerned. Could it possibly have been because she just happened to be the daughter of a school governor?

A few of my friends work at one of the top schools in the area. However, it nevertheless has a large SEN cohort and they have a number of SEN staff who (despite not always being qualified teachers themselves) feel obliged to interfere with the work of teachers on a regular basis. The latest intervention by an SEN teacher in the life of one of my friends was to tell him that a child, who, having been told off for swearing at another student, called him a twat was not at fault. Apparently the incident was the result of “cultural differences” as the child was Chinese. However, the most dramatic effect on the school appears to be the change in the school’s vocabulary. I talked in my previous blog entry about SEN staff labelling students as autistic if they show almost any lack of social skills or any poor behaviour. At the school in question this has spread to the point where the word is used indiscriminately even to label staff. The maths department are now all known to be autistic. Most infamously one SEN teacher told some of her colleagues that “Hitler wasn’t evil, he was just a bit autistic”. I do wonder what parents of genuinely autistic children would make of this nonsense.

*Actually I don’t really mind talking about teaching. At least it’s something almost everybody can relate to. One of my pet hates at school social events is when one of my colleagues says something along the lines of “The rule is: Nobody can talk about work”. This amounts to “Don’t talk about the one thing we all have in common” and dooms us to endless talk about people’s houses, families and pets, which never interests me at all and as a topic of conversation hardly compares with discussing exactly why the Headteacher is a knob.

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Not-So Special Needs

June 10, 2007

When talking about SEN (Special Educational Needs) it’s hard to resist talking about the nonsense regarding “behavioural needs” first. Badly behaved children are seen as having “a condition”, often some kind of autism, rather than a moral weakness. Lots of attention and special treatment is seen as the only cure. Children who don’t fit in (perhaps they are more intelligent or well-behaved than the school is used to) can also be judged to be suffering from a form of autism. At Woodrow Wilson School I received the following advice about an “autistic” child:

“Jonathan likes a quiet, calm classroom. Tell him what the rules are. Explain things to him clearly.”

What a freak! Fancy not wanting to be confronted with chaos in class, unknown rules and unclear instructions. Generally any child who notices the rioting in their school and the fact that many of their teachers talk rubbish (or any child shows any other sign of sanity and judgement) is likely to be labelled as being on the Autistic Spectrum. If they are good at maths and like playing chess then it’s almost guaranteed.

However, besides the mad and the bright, there are also students who genuinely have educational needs. There are students with physical disabilities and students who are generally disturbed or actually autistic. In most schools there are a significant number of children whose basic literacy and numeracy skills are years behind where they should be. These children are normally classed as having learning difficulties. Mixed ability teaching helps ensure that these less able students are likely to get further and further behind as they experience lesson after lesson pitched at too high a level that contribute nothing to their educational needs. Of course the main help these students need is extra tuition in the basic skills which they are lacking.

Schools have plenty of resources (usually whole departments) to help with SEN students. Unfortunately a large part of these resources seem dedicated to the production of paperwork that does nobody any good. The belief seems to be that describing needs casts a spell that will cause them to be met. Other resources are spent on teaching assistants, helpers for students in lessons. Some resources are spent where they can do most good – on teaching. How much SEN teaching there is varies greatly between schools.

The Metropolitan School organises the timetable to provide extra numeracy and literacy lessons, all taught in the same classroom with the same teacher, who would also teach them for the scheduled Maths and English lessons. The teachers who taught these classes had usually trained in primary and as far as I could tell seemed to do a very effective job, although having ten hours or more with the same class took its toll on some of them. They seemed particularly prone to leaving the school.

Stafford Grove School used to withdraw students from randomly and inconveniently selected subjects, in order to attend extra lessons. When they were taken out of PSHE or mixed ability languages lessons it was probably good for all concerned. When they were taken out of a subject they liked and could do it was a disaster. Very often the students would refuse to go, and would attend their regularly scheduled lesson instead. The usual response from the SEN department was to give up trying to withdraw that child. It is at this point that the difference between regular teaching and SEN teaching becomes clear. If a student didn’t want to attend my lesson I would be stuck with them regardless of their unwillingness and regardless of whether I would be glad to be shot of them. However the SEN teachers could actually refuse to help the unwilling kids. They would actually say things like “I’ll help somebody who wants to be helped” as if teaching somebody to read and write was an optional extra the school only threw on for the most deserving.

Woodrow Wilson School had the worst system of all. They also withdrew students, but instead of withdrawing them from whole lessons, they would be taken out for twenty minutes every couple of weeks. Anybody who has ever been a teacher will be aware that a student who misses twenty minutes of a lesson (plus the time takes to walk between classrooms) will inevitably lose out or more than twenty minutes of their education as they will have trouble keeping up with work where they’ve missed key points or instructions. Consequently entire lessons were effectively lost, often in core subjects like Maths and English, for the sake of twenty minutes of tuition. As you can imagine this system was neither popular nor effective.

It’s hard not to conclude that the best way to help students with learning difficulties is to put them in their own classes, to make sure the extra help they get is part of the schools’ regular timetable, and to ensure that SEN teachers are teaching proper lessons with SEN students rather than just providing optional extras. Unfortunately the current orthodoxy is that these students need to be “included”, integrated as much as possible with their more able peers, rather than being given the most appropriate help. After all, if you start giving students special lessons, special time tables and special teachers, it’s a very short step to giving them special schools.

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The First Law of Behaviour Management

June 3, 2007

As you may have noticed my biggest concern about British secondary schools is behaviour. It’s probably about time I started talking what can be done. I’m going to state general principles about how behaviour works and then suggest what it means for improving behaviour at every level.

The First Law of Behaviour Management is Whatever is Normal is Acceptable. It is the case that any deed, no matter how unacceptable it might seem outside of the world of teaching, will be incorporated into the routines of very many students once they see others do it. Disruption of lessons; bullying; verbal abuse of staff; even violence; can become normal in a school. All it takes is for it to happen enough times and it will enter the students psyche as “something that just happens” they may even become angry at any member of staff that attempts to stop it. It becomes so normal that you can even spot patterns to it. Much of what I have written on this blog contains examples of these patterns, types of behaviour that I have seen tens, or hundreds, or thousands of times. Poor behaviour is a contagion and behaviour policies at every level of education should be about stopping its spread, not about seeking to find a mythical underlying cause.

Once the First Law is accepted then we can look at how it can be used at different levels of the education system:

Classroom Teachers:

It is not acceptable for the teacher to seek to merely contain the worst offender. Others will copy the behaviour. Every rule that it is physically possible to enforce should be enforced. No allowances can be made for “characters”. There can be no appeasement of the trouble makers. Teachers should not lavish attention on the worst offender. The highest standard must be set for all pupils, for all classes, for all times of the day. Even if it is only one pupil that disrupts your lesson, they must be stopped, not worked around. Of course in our current system this can be the most difficult course of action to take, which is why it is vital teachers demand the right to do this, and get support with doing this.

School Managers:

A school needs to be run in a way that makes unacceptable behaviour abnormal. Some of this is just talk, making expectations clear at every opportunity, in letters to parents, in assemblies, in the school prospectus. Rules should be clear and no room should be left for argument. However, what will make the difference is what happens when rules are broken. The key idea is that at every opportunity the offender must be removed from “normal” children. Separation from peers should be a key part of every punishment. Detentions should be in a secure room staffed by Senior Management. A day’s isolation should include breaktime and lunchtime. There must be a system of removing disruptive children from a classroom that is available to all teachers. In some schools a room where disruptive children are sent is enough, in others it needs staff to come and collect any disruptive child. Every removal must be followed up otherwise being removed just becomes normal.

Beyond that the main priority is the battle against “inclusion”. Exclusions both temporary and permanent should be considered without reference to targets. Verbal abuse of staff should lead to an automatic fixed term exclusion. Repeat offenders and violent students should, also automatically, be permanently excluded. If the LEA structure is unable to cope with the consequences of a school enforcing decent standards of behaviour then it is up to the school to take on the responsibilities of the LEA, setting up their own “school within a school” for the most disturbed offenders. Many schools already have provision for students that choose not to behave (ludicrously described as having Emotional or Behavioural Disorders, despite usually never having been diagnosed with any recognised medical or psychiatric condition). However this provision should not be focused on keeping those students in the mainstream classroom, it should be focused on getting them out, putting them in a specialised classroom, preferably behind a very high wall, where they will spend their entire school day, if possible operating on a different timetable to the rest of the school.

LEAs and Government:

This is an easy one to cover. Once you accept Whatever is Normal is Acceptable as a key principle for behaviour then there must be an end to Inclusion for students with behaviour problems. Instead of running down Pupil Referral Units (and special education generally) they should be expanded. There must be an end to all targets to reduce exclusions, and all financial penalties that result from exclusions. The law needs to be changed to make exclusions easier and the grounds for exclusion clear and indisputable. The focus of inspections should not be teaching and learning, two minutes looking at exam results tell you all you need to know about this. Inspections should be about behaviour, respect, safety and general order in a school. Interviewing staff and students about whether they’ve been subjected to verbal abuse and violence, and what was done about it, is a hundred times more worthwhile than trying to find out if lesson objectives are put on the board in every lesson. This type of inspection can then be used to get rid of the layer of school management who are entirely preoccupied with covering up behaviour problems.

This outlines the most immediate practical steps that can be taken to deal with poor behaviour. Obviously there is much more still to be covered, but the first priority must be to stop the contagion by making sure that poor behaviour is never normal.

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