The ‘making it up as you go along’ behaviour policy

Something stuck in my throat on a personal level after reading the excellent post that Tom Sherrington wrote yesterday, describing his observations of teaching and learning at HGS. In that post, he says this:

Where behaviour is problematic, often it’s because too many low level issues are tolerated before the system kicks in: tolerance of being late, missing equipment, calling out, undercurrent of chat etc.

That hit home because, for all the good progress that I am seeing with my Year 8 class, that is a fair description of what every single lesson with them is like. From observing colleagues, I’m certainly not alone in that, and I wouldn’t say entirely to blame either; however, I’d like to explore what I and the school are doing to see if we could improve it at all.

I work in a new-ish school and the behaviour policy is regularly revised; it has been through four different incarnations in the past two years. When I arrived there was no formal system of consequences – if students were causing trouble then teachers set detentions as they judged it, and if someone was especially difficult then there was the option for a senior team call-out. There was no isolation, no student support unit, no faculty or HOD or after-school detentions.

This caused chaos. Students would be called back for detentions and they would claim that they had detentions elsewhere, and there was no way to follow it up swiftly enough, and no consequences if they did lie to you. After six months or so, the school moved to holding faculty detentions on set days of the week, run by middle leaders. This worked a lot better, but was limited by the fact that detentions were once-weekly, and persistent offenders got the same sanction as one-time offenders.

Then the school started with W1, W2 and a ‘parking’ system where students were sent out of lessons, which seemed logical enough but which was hampered by the fact that we couldn’t do anything with students who were persistently disruptive (mostly in a low-level fashion). They would be referred to middle leaders, middle leaders would refer to SLT, SLT would claim that these issues weren’t serious enough to do anything about and so not act on them, and then these persistently disruptive students would get away scot-free. So they would continue.  Many teachers naturally gave up on the parking system and used their own methods instead, aware that parking wasn’t working. This was logical, but over time SLT got increasingly frustrated with teachers who were using the parking system and started criticising them for doing so, seeing other teachers who didn’t use it (or very rarely used it) being much more effective with their classes. Which leads us to now…

Recently we have done away with the language of W1, W2 and ‘parking’, because the formality of this structure was seen to be a straitjacket for teachers. There is still the option of having a student removed from your lessons because they are rendering it ‘unteachable’, a very serious sanction, but this is only to be used as a last resort in order to make sure teachers have done everything they possibly can to keep students in lessons. Detentions are again run at teachers’ discretion, and staff have been briefed about making sure that sanctions truly hit home for each of our students – which will be different depending on the individual.

There are both positives and negatives to this approach.

The positives:

  • It’s empowering to the individual teacher. It gives you the freedom to make sure you’re doing something that will actually impact your student.
  • It’s expressly designed to encourage teachers to use every tool in their arsenal to get students back into the lesson before they get sent out – definitely a good thing.
  • It’s built, for the most part, around trusting that teachers are able to do it right.

The negatives:

  • It’s hard for students to know where they stand. A W1 has a definite status; now students are all at sea in knowing how well or badly they’re doing during a lesson (this is designed to improve self-esteem by taking away the sense of failure/self-judgement.).
  • It’s prone to one of the problems we started with – teachers unable to follow up on detentions because they’re not centralised.
  • It’s also prone to inconsistency. There’s very little way to tell that all teachers are enforcing similar levels of behaviour across the board; who knows if what you do in English is the same as in Maths?
  • It’s basically managing by charisma. If you’re somebody who finds classroom control difficult, then SLT have basically taken away a major weapon in your arsenal; now you have to get them on your side some other way. For NQTs joining next year, it sounds like a nightmare.
  • If SLT start monitoring removals from the classroom, then in all likelihood people will simply stop using it for fear that it makes them look like they can’t manage behaviour.

Truthfully, from where I’m standing it feels a little bit like a behaviour policy based on ‘making it up as we go along’. My biggest problem here is inconsistency; we supposedly have the highest expectations of students, but what happens is that I end up applying a different rule to 8X3 than I would to my 9Z1, my top-set Year 9 class. My line manager tells me that’s because kids are human beings and we can’t be so ruthless with them, but I think I disagree with him; I think anything less is selling them short. I get that the school has made a choice – some of our kids have low self-esteem and if they get in trouble in class it might put them off learning. However, I’m tempted to argue that what we’ve got here is just going to lower self-esteem further, as sanctions may well end up seeming personal.

What I love about HGS is how consistent their policy is, how well-reasoned and thought-through each stage has been. Teachers know what C1, C2, C3 are given out for, as do students, and those have been followed through on (very publically). Our policy, so far, suggests that for some of our kids the behaviour rules are just too hard – and what that translates to is saying that “oh, kids from that estate just can’t behave”. Which is nonsense, of course, but it’s the kind of nonsense that also means you end up with low-level disruption in your middle-sets until your dying day.

Or maybe I’m being too cynical. How does this compare to your schools’ policies?

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The ‘making it up as you go along’ behaviour policy

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