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.