This post is about “what we did”. I’ve written about behaviour a few times before, most recently after seeing Tom Bennett speak at the Festival of Education at Wellington.
Over the last year I’ve become increasingly proud of the school I work in. As a result, I’ve definitely managed to be more forthright about my views on social media, and have engaged in the unfortunate tendency to post things like “we do this, and it works”, reflecting my increased pride in my school. I love Kev Bartle’s recent blog on leadership, but can’t help but feel we need established, consistent systems before getting close to the sort of thing he writes about. My school is not outstanding. It’s not going to achieve an Outstanding judgement in its next OFSTED inspection. It has a long way to go. However, in my judgement we’ve gone in 18 months from a school guaranteed to get a 4 to a school with an argument for a “good” judgement.
Context To say I work in a school in challenging circumstances is understating the case significantly. In the Year 11 cohort that just left (165 students) we taught 280 students. I have been rereading Hirsch’s The Schools We Need recently and in there is reference to some schools in the US with over 100% transient population – we’re not quite at that level but our churn is of significant challenge that I have not come across anywhere else in the UK (“off the scale” is one way I’ve heard it described). Our cohorts are significantly below the national average for ability, and in the context section of Raise we are at the most challenging quintile in every category. Very few of our most recent intake were “high ability” students.
We became an Academy last year under an Executive Principal who is Head of another local (and high performing) school. Prior to that, the school was under a Local Authority Warning Notice. It’s fair to say that the pressure of stagnant results, declining roll, and a Local Authority who did little to dispel the idea that they were out to “get” the school created extraordinary pressure on our Headteacher. I remember thinking “if OFSTED come now, we will lose our jobs”. The Senior Leadership Team did not sufficiently oppose the pressure from the Local Authority. In fact, I would go as far as to say we magnified it. The school was an unhappy place, largely because of the threat of OFSTED combined with our poor leadership. I do not know what I would have done if I had been Head at that time – she was backed into a corner and it was a really horrific way for someone I have enormous respect for to have retired after many years of service.
Our staff are great. Despite the pressure that I regret us foisting on them (and I’m not opposed to putting pressure on in different circumstances, but in this one it was the wrong pressure, of the wrong amount, at the wrong time) they plan and deliver lessons of a high standard. They work hard, follow direction, question and search and strive to be better. There are very few “door handle planners”.
First Leadership Group Meeting
Under the new Headteacher, I was given a new role within a few minutes of the first meeting of what we renamed the Leadership Group. I had been responsible for ‘Teaching and Learning’, but now I was to be delegated responsibility for “everything to do with the Middle School” (Years 9-11). Then we were asked what we should do to have an impact instantly. Within a few minutes we came up with:
- Ban mobile phones
- Exclude students who behave badly
- Ensure students see the Leadership Group a lot
- Enforce uniform standards
- Sanction poor punctuality
- Have whole school assemblies focused on ethos
I genuinely think that the wider staff could and would have come up with these same priorities.
Since the school has tried everything in the past to deal with being a school in difficult circumstances – learning styles, student observations, learning walks, high stakes observations, low stakes observations, interventions from 7am-9pm including on Saturdays, Mocksted, Local Authority secondments, “Lazy Teaching”, and heaven knows what else, we were ignoring what Tom Bennett calls the elephant in the room. I saw my Executive Principal speak at a Teaching Leaders event where he said “schools in challenging circumstances are usually challenging because they face challenging behaviour”. I think we’d been conditioned to ignore this and try to deal with everything else while hoping behaviour got better – and really the Leadership Group should have been shaking each other and screaming the problem “It’s the behaviour of the students, stupid!” It’s been the case that our behaviour system (via SIMs) has been well used to track behaviour, but that’s it.
This goes back to a staff working group a few years ago. Stuff gets recorded. Briefly, it’s 1 Behaviour Point if it affects the student (eg late to lesson, lack of equipment), 2 Behaviour Points if it affects others’ learning (eg talking back), 3 Behaviour Points if the behaviour is a risk to health and safety. But despite the recording of behaviour incidents being good, the follow up wasn’t. Students were just recycled into the system (via it being the classroom teacher’s responsibility, then subject leaders, then whoever but by the time it got to that, most people had forgotten about the behaviour). Internal exclusion, or seclusion, was used regularly. Parents meetings happened. But some students had accumulated over 700 behaviour points in the previous year, and staff were frankly sick of it.
What we did
I led a whole middle-school assembly on the first day introducing my new role. I then outlined the students’ responsibility, which I handily proclaimed A, B, C. Analyse your work. Behave. Correct your work. I then promised that if others stopped them from doing this, we would remove them from the classroom. Partly to prove they were doing it, we expected their student planners (previously barely used) to be on desks in every classroom. We then logged how often each member of SLT went into classrooms. We still do this. We are not monitoring staff, or quality of teaching. We are checking students have planners on desks and the question I ask is “Excuse me Sir/ Miss, is everything to your satisfaction in here?” If the answer is not yes, we encourage the member of staff to send the student out and there is no negotiation, no returning the student to the classroom. If a student is found outside of the classroom, the only question is “would you like me to take this young person away” and if the answer is affirmative we do. Every time, including with supply teachers. If there is a mobile phone incident, we encouraged staff to make it a big deal. Confiscate every single time, and parents could collect after 24 hours. If a phone went off and wasn’t handed in, the Leadership Group were called and we would search every student and their bags and confiscate all mobile phones found.
I’ve previously written about my brother, and the fact that I believe that if his school had permanently excluded him, he would not have gone to prison as a young adult. So here was a line: If students accumulate 25 behaviour points in a half term, they would have a fixed term exclusion. In addition, students who were a minute late for school had an automatic 20 minute detention after school the same day. No excuses.
Holding our nerve
It would have been easy to have made exceptions to this line, given that I signed off over 80 exclusions in the first half term. In fact once we got to half term, I realised that a number of students had got to 20 points within 2 weeks, and then behave to not get excluded. So I made a decision, which I announced in one of my whole school assemblies, to reduce the threshold to 20 points. I then ratified this at our next Leadership Group meeting. The threshold became more demanding. And in the second half term we had many exclusions, but it was less than 80 (I don’t recall the figure).
So repeat excludees…
If a student was excluded twice, they’d usually be coming back from the second exclusion to a “final warning” which they would sign in front of me. I had to hold my nerve a number of times and we “moved on” a large number of students in the last academic year. I am not sure if I should put the number in the public domain, but this was necessary. If we had to, we permanently excluded for persistent poor behaviour. Exclusions went down half term by half term. With one exception: we had a serious incident in public in the last half term. It was actually “useful” because it allowed me to really stamp the school’s authority on our most troublesome year group. There was a fight, and a large number of the year group had watched it, with some filming it. The next day, after a day’s investigation, I ended the school day early and did an assembly with a clear message. I told the students about my brother, and told them it was because I care that I would be very harsh. We excluded 19 students just for being at the fight – all of whom were given final warnings (and I mean these – the students have seen enough of their peers not return to school and they now value their place at our school). Those directly involved (3 of them) we moved on permanently. The system evolved. Students who get to 7 behaviour points are placed on form tutor report. Students who get 12 are placed in all-day seclusion for between 1 and 3 days (with a re-entry meeting with parents). Students who get 20 continue to face a fixed term exclusion. Every behaviour point is sent in a text to parents.
So, the new academic year…
Second, we introduced a Saturday detention. If a student gets 4 punctuality detentions, they then have to attend school on Saturday, in full school uniform, dropped off and picked up by their parents.
Third, we introduced a new uniform. To go alongside that, we introduced a uniform card, which we named “Ready to Learn” card. To support this, we introduced (at the suggestion of staff) a 5 minute afternoon registration. If a child is chewing, or has their top button undone, or isn’t wearing their blazer, or anything else, their Ready to Learn card is signed. If they don’t have it on them, it’s an automatic 1 hour detention on Friday with me. The detention is sitting in the Hall (which is very public) on the floor in silence after school. If a child has a signature on their ready to learn card, the tutor keeps them behind for ten minutes after school. No chances, just certainty of action. If they have two, they are in Middle School detention with me on Friday for 30 minutes (which includes a personal lecture at the end), 3 times is an hour. 4 is consideration if they are doing their job and consideration of a seclusion or exclusion.
The first week of this term, I had 11 in Middle School detention. Since then I’ve never had more than 5. Most weeks it’s 2 or 3. Students have raised their performance to meet expectations to the extent that the Student Progress Leader in Year 9 now gets all Year 9s who receive a single behaviour point for home learning to attend the detention for an hour.
So this all sounds very Gradgrindian and horrific. On the contrary, though, a colleague said to me during break duty a couple of weeks ago “if you saw students in large groups, you used to be really wary… now though, they’re invariably laughing and joking”. Anecdotes like this are not uncommon. I noted on twitter one evening “I can’t describe how much happier the students appear to be”. The old maxims about students requiring stability and structure really are evident. One colleague, who joined us partway through last year from an Outstanding school, said “this is the best behaviour system I’ve ever seen”.
And our results have gone up and in no small way is this down to the improvements over the last year – even in a year the improvements had impact – despite the attainment profile of last Year’s (2013) Year 11 being the lowest in the school’s history (and will now continue to decline for some time), we achieved our highest results and a raise of 13% in the Headline figure. Our Maths pass rate is a stunning 73%, Spanish 96%, and History, Art and Science all very strong. English had a difficult year, but maintained a decent performance despite the students being weaker on entry. Teaching is harder, because there is LOADS more marking to do, and the students are more demanding academically. It also feels like just the start. We just don’t know the potential of the school now. Attendance was 91% over a year ago. It’s now 95% (even though a significant proportion of absence is exclusions).
One final note – I’ve written here about behaviour, but not about reward systems. We have a similar system of “achievements” and a points system. Students get badges (which they really want) for their uniform, and school pencils/pens/pen set/ usb etc for achievement. I don’t believe that rewards and sanctions are two sides of the same coin. The latter has been one lever (and our second* most effective one) to turn the school around. The former has been nice. We haven’t got everything right yet (there are still pockets of frustration, some colleagues don’t always play their part [though I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the Leadership Group’s job to manage behaviour full stop (the pressure of this largely falls on pastoral leaders and we haven’t got this right yet)], we still haven’t got 100% attendance to all parents’ evenings). We’ve just said something simple (we won’t tolerate poor behaviour), meant it, and proved it. And as a result, I actually want OFSTED in. I am more than comfortable justifying our astronomical exclusion rates. post script: This has been the movement of a school with the same staff, (mainly) the same leadership group, and the same students. The difference was that we had no LA consultants and we started listening to staff. It sounds like I take a lot of credit in this post, but actually, it’s been the staff whom, when given permission and structure, have consistently dedicated themselves to transforming the school so significantly.
* I’ll blog on the most effective lever another time, but for reference it’s the change in curriculum.