What Makes A School Discipline System Work?

August 24, 2014

Before I get into describing how school discipline systems work, a little explanation of where I’m coming from. There was a bit of discussion recently (for instance, here, although I admit that once again I may be blogging about a discussion on Twitter) about the Guardian Teacher Network’s Secret Teacher feature. While I sympathise with those who complained that it’s not always very good, I’m quite keen to defend both the principle of anonymity and the usefulness of saying negative things about the education system. I think that there are issues where things have moved on because teachers have spoken out anonymously. I think teachers who wouldn’t have spoken in public did a lot to change perceptions about the unfairness of OFSTED and the conduct of observations, as well as the extent of dumbing-down, gaming and cheating in exams, at a time when much of the education establishment claimed no problems existed. I think there are other issues such as workload, behaviour, teacher mental health and bullying or incompetent managers where little progress has been made but those writing anonymously are the best sources of information. I also think teachers criticising the education system prevent those with power in it from claiming that any criticism of it is an attack on teachers, which is still an old standby for those who want to dismiss legitimate concerns.

I think there is a further, and more relevant, point that describing how failures happen is often a greater source of insight than studying successes. For instance, I had a really positive response from so many managers to my How to be bad SMT post. It is also why I found it easy to comment on this post from Tom Sherrington in which he discussed his intention to get a whole school behaviour system in place and working. I have lots of experience of failing behaviour systems. So much so that when I passed on my advice and opinions in the comments, I realised that it was enough to fill a blogpost. My worst experiences (and a few positive ones) have taught me quite a bit about school discipline systems. It is remarkable how much failing behaviour systems in different schools have in common. Invariably responsibility for behaviour has been pushed down the chain, (serious incidents are dealt with by middle managers, detentions and contact with parents by individual teachers) with the worst schools having managers who see their responsibility as punishing those teachers who don’t cooperate with concealing the bad behaviour. The level at which sanctions are organised is key. If seeking to challenge behaviour creates hours of work for a teacher with little effect then they won’t use the system; often it is simply impossible. Where behaviour is good, it is usually the case that it is easy for a teacher to enforce the rules. Where behaviour is bad, it is usually the case that it is difficult for the teachers to enforce the rules. Where behaviour is terrible, managers are usually working to prevent teachers enforcing the rules. For a behaviour management system to work there has to be capacity to deal with everything that arises and only SMT have the power to create that capacity.

If it is agreed that there is to be a whole school detention system (something I generally favour unless behaviour is already very, very good) there are key things that will make a difference.

1) Capacity (both raw numbers and keeping those who attend in check). I have seen such systems fail because there were too many students in detention or because those who were supervising them had insufficient power or authority to do so effectively. Having an SMT member (supported by other teachers) all in the hall with kids sat in silence is the most efficient I’ve seen, but it requires a lot of effort to ensure it always happens and that disruption in detention is dealt with. The quickest way I’ve seen schools overload their behaviour system is to use it to enforce homework.

2) What happens when students don’t attend. I have seen such systems break down because in the event of non-attendance it was up to the class teacher to chase up and reset and there was no increased sanction. This is even worse if the class teachers are in charge of scheduling the detentions or if kids are used to arguing the toss over detentions. I’ve seen schools where it was well known that non-attendance at whole school detentions was the best strategy and teachers would rarely even know if detentions had been sat or not.

3) The response to escalation. The worst failures of whole school detention systems I’ve seen are ones where the schools did not deal adequately with serious incidents such as swearing at a teacher or walking out of lessons. Students came to realise that when faced with the prospect of a detention (for instance having got one or two warnings in a three warning system) it was safer to walk out of the classroom or swear at the teacher than to get a detention. A behaviour system is only as good as its response to the most serious incidents.

4) The response to system failure. These systems usually have teething troubles. Perhaps some perverse consequences; perhaps a loophole; perhaps somebody not doing their job, or most likely a bottleneck which means somebody somewhere suddenly has more work than they could possibly do. What happens when these problems occur is absolutely vital. If people try to deal with it by getting those below them to generate less work (i.e. set less detentions, enforce fewer rules), or by losing the paperwork, then the system will fail. There has to be an understanding that problems can be referred upwards without blame. Broken behaviour systems usually break the moment somebody in the system will not support classroom teachers who are setting a lot of detentions or dealing with a lot of serious incidents either by telling them to stop confronting poor behaviour, or by not following through on that teacher’s paperwork.

It is fairly easy to get to a point where the behaviour system is “good enough”, i.e. where all SMT, HoDs and the most established teachers have enough support not to have to worry too much about behaviour. I think that is the equilibrium the average school ends up with: poor behaviour is endemic but not universal. It is far harder to get a school to the point where good behaviour is expected in every lesson and around the site. In fact, I think that’s why behaviour in schools is often so poor, because those with power settled for the “good enough” option, with the blame for the remaining poor behaviour being placed with those with least power to change it.

Anyway, I hope this is of use to some managers somewhere. Nothing makes a school ineffective like endemic behaviour issues, and I have never yet encountered a secondary school that sorted behaviour simply by nagging, or even training, classroom teachers. It’s always a whole school issue because expectations are contagious, and sensible managers will want their teachers to concentrate on teaching, not compensating for the low expectations students had when they arrived at their classroom.



  1. Most effective I have seen is when the Head takes a direct and active role.

  2. Brilliant post. It’s followed on nicely from your ‘How to be a bad SLT’. Once an effective system is in place, supported and enforced by SLT, teachers will trust it. This could take time to introduce and for students to take seriously.

  3. As I said on twitter Andrew, this is great stuff. I agree and have come to agree via my direct experiences.

    Much of what you write about is actually less work for SLT as well. If SLT are taking responsibility for behaviour, so many reactive situations and “dealing with” staff, students, and parents, marketing the school becomes much easier. It’s a myth that ignoring behaviour makes things easy for SLT.

    So why do they do it? I think it’s a genuine manifestation of progressive doctrine and the challenge of authority. The establishment of relationships is seen as paramount, so when a child steps out of line, the progressive analysis is that relationships have been damaged, and to repair them, the classroom teacher has to have a prominent (or only) role.

    The whole school detention thing is something we’ve done, and it’s very easy to get a child in whole school detention. However, we don’t follow your advice when it comes to homework.

    So as I said on twitter, I’m really interested in what you write about including homework as a way to make the system collapse.

    I wonder what the best way to deal with HW is – because actually, not doing homework is really disruptive as well in all sorts of ways (including for a teacher’s workload and ensuring you know where each child is and what they know).

    Once our whole school detention got to the stage (which took nearly a year) of having next to no students in it, we looked at our “behaviour points”. By far the highest occurrence was “incomplete homework” which includes copying or not putting effort into it.

    So we said “if you get a homework behaviour point, as well as whatever the classroom teacher wants to do, you will spend an hour sat on the floor in the hall on a Friday after school with your Head of School (which is me)”. If they don’t do the classroom teacher’s sanction, the teacher is encouraged to put another behaviour point on.

    We had nearly 100 in whole school detention the first week we did this. Tutors escort the pupils down to the hall so that they get there, staff ‘pop in’ but don’t have to. It’s a system that staff like.

    We also funded a homework club available for all but that persistent offenders must go to.

    We now have 30ish per week (this is Years 9/10/11). This is obviously pretty good. Only 30 instances of not doing homework in three year groups across all subjects is massive progress.

    Here were our issues:

    1) When a child misses the detention due to absence, it is another week before they sit it. This makes it less effective, and in the case of two or three Year 11 students, we suspect they were taking Fridays off school (we’re having 4 detentions a week next year to make it instant, but this seems like a huge allocation of staff and my time)
    2) Early on, we had 7 or 8 kids opt not to go on a Friday, which put strain on our seclusion room. They were very supportive, because it makes a difference and we had to escalate the sanction. So our seclusion room was jam packed on Mondays.
    3) We have the same 15 kids in there, week in, week out, regardless of the number of parental meetings, the increase in monitoring and reports and so on. I in fact said to our Heads of Year that we just have to sanction them even though they appear not to be ABLE to complete their homework to a satisfactory standard (i.e. they are just not organised enough) rather than because they are unwilling (I can hardly believe I’ve written that) – and the reason we just keep sanctioning the same kids is to ensure the OTHER kids don’t slip.

    But I’m not satisfied at all. I think it’s still an issue that affects our kids, and disproportionately affects the poorest kids.

    On twitter, you suggested parents are better enforcers of completing homework than the school, and you suggested that this might be solved by ensuring effective use of the planner and parents being able to check. I agree this is important, and one of our behaviour strategies has been to have SLT go into classrooms checking all kids have their planners (and reading books and uniform card) on their desks in all lessons. Not having one of those is an hour detention in whole school detention.

    But I don’t accept that this is good enough. I know that our poorest kids are the most likely not to be picked up by working with parents and I know we need to have a system that compensates for the minority of parents who can’t or won’t chase up homework or for whom the pupil is pulling the wool over their eyes.

    I suppose I’m reflecting:

    (1) is there a solution?
    (2) without including homework in our whole school detention, we would still have a ludicrous situation with homework (I mean something like 800 homework behaviour points a week, which is nearly 2 per pupil), so can schools afford not to have a system?
    (3) if there is a solution, what might it be? What do other schools do?
    (4) if there isn’t a solution, does that mean we just give up on trying to get satisfactory homework from every pupil in every lesson. This does not sit well with me.

    I know the response from loads of people will be “work closely/ even more closely with parents” – however, I assume schools are doing this – I certainly think we are.

    • I really don’t have an answer. The only school I ever worked in where homework was completely sorted (except for sixth formers!) was a girls’ grammar school and it relied on parental and student motivation and the wide distances between students’ homes preventing cooperation. The ultimate difficulty are students who prefer detentions to homework, or at least to the change in lifestyle it would take to get organised enough to do homework. I’ve found online homeworks slightly better in maths because they eliminate copying, and students seem slightly more motivated. Planners and parental cooperation do also make a difference. But I have never seen it properly cracked and generally schools vary between homework being dire and it being virtually non-existent. I have never seen any school where the effort teachers put into homework was worth the return. It would be interesting to hear from schools that have really cracked it.

      • I agree with your last comment. I don’t think we have kids who prefer detentions to hw, or at least not ours, because the detentions are in addition to completing it, are in silence and on the floor.
        But we haven’t cracked it. I agree it’s be good to hear from others who have cracked it.

    • How effective is prep? Might this be a solution for those that *can’t* do homework?

      • This would be my preferred solution – any readers out there who have a prep system?

    • I was just chatting about this with my OH. He had the misfortune to get his education at a very ‘challenging’ school and saw it all from the other side. I don’t know whether your students end up getting up to date with homework but his comment was simply that an hour a week of detention, for some, is still infinitely preferable to getting the work done when it is set.
      What (humane) consequence can be given that will force a child with limited self control to make the first steps on the road of deferring gratification (possibly fighting a home environment that works against them doing so)? It seems well worth it for the good of the child to really fight for this.
      Once they get any sort of homework habit going maybe you’ve cracked it but I wonder if that is the key question.

      • I imagine it all comes down to finding the correct incentives. Easy for me to say, though.

      • Which is one reason why optimised education needs more than just a focus on transferring information from working memory to long term memory.

    • Re your point about effective use of the planner: have you considered putting homework online? That way (most) parents could check much more easily. Also for children with processing speed and organisation issues, it can really help.(I suspect it might also have an effect in terms of ensuring the homework set is of good quality and clearly presented, since teachers know that it will be viewable by other staff/management.)

      • There are a number of companies trying to sell Sims based online planner things. I’m far from convinced about them (though my colleague is actually trialling one) and I can’t see how that will get round my concerns. I think the planner is effective – but I also recognise that not all parents have the capacity to support their children in the best way and where they don’t, we have to find another way.

        • At my school we have a Saturday night detention. That is a pretty good ‘incentive’! However, perhaps for children not used to delaying gratification a punishment as far away as Friday just isn’t enough. What is the current homework club like? Do they have to go everyday after school? I guess for those there because they are not working it needs to be considerably more unpleasant/inconvenient/take much longer than just getting the homework done in the first place.

          • We have a Saturday detention. I hate staffing it though (even though I go in on Saturdays for our Aspiring further club).
            HW club is prior to the deadline day. So if they’re persistent offenders they have to go every night to complete HW. They still manage to get into detention.
            We’re going to run 2 whole school detentions/ week this year amongst the Yrs 7-9 Heads of Year and me, to try and ensure the system is even tighter. It currently works, but I just can’t see it ever getting the numbers down to 0.

  4. “Most effective I have seen is when the Head takes a direct and active role.” . .TOTALLY agree – after teaching for 16 years under quite a few Heads I am quite sure that it is the Headteacher who sets the tone. A good, strong Head = minimal behaviour issues.

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. Excellent post with logical points. I agree that homework floods the system, and in my experience, whole school sanctions don’t fix homework in the same way that they can fix attitudes and behaviours.
    The only way I have managed homework effectively as a class teacher effectively, and seen huge gains for a minimum of time, is using technology to track weekly homework. Whilst I often can’t see the use of iPads in classrooms, it is great for circulating in a lesson, ticking or crossing homework on a tracker, and forwarding details to parents by email. My current school is fairly middle of the road – quite high levels of deprivation, poor but not atrocious behaviour. However in this context students seem to take notes of being tracked, and knowing that these details are shared.

  7. […] teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2014/08/24/what-makes-a-school-discipline-system-work/ […]

  8. Good post. I can never understand why SLTs make such huge rods for their own backs.
    In 1999 I visited three of East Anglia’s top comprehensives for the Telegraph Good Schools Guide, and all had excellent behaviour. The most impressive one was Framingham Earl, just outside Norwich. At the end of the school day I was left in the school library with all of the Year 11 pupils, who were more than eager to talk to the press about their school’s ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policy.
    They said that coming from primary schools where you could blag your way out of almost anything, it was a shock to be sent to time out for dropping your pencil on the floor. But very soon they saw that lessons were far more interesting when they weren’t continuously disrupted. They appreciated that teachers who aren’t stressed out were always happy to give up some of their free time to help you with anything you didn’t understand.
    There’s another dimension to this as well: when staff know that they can count on the full support of each other as well as the SLT, morale improves. And the need to discipline pupils dwindles down to a tiny number of incidents: the great majority of time, no pupil is undergoing any kind of disciplinary action. The homework question doesn’t even enter the picture. In short, the school enters a virtuous cycle by virtue of the fact that all pupils know that the SLT is smarter than they are, and attention-seeking behaviour brings no rewards. Because they are actually learning, there is less incentive to act up.
    I only taught for three years in a school with ‘good enough’ standards, yet I never had any problems. Having dealt with hung-over Jocks in map-reading lessons as a corporal in the Royal Pioneers, our kids were mere pussycats by comparison. When I read about ‘behaviour management’ strategies, I couldn’t believe how much the blob have lost the plot.

  9. […] Teaching in British schools « What Makes A School Discipline System Work? […]

  10. […] What Makes A School Discipline System Work? […]

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