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Do The Right Thing

Doing the rounds of the education press this weekend was the news that a school known for its ‘no excuses’ approach to managing pupil behaviour has just received an outstanding judgement from Ofsted. The disciplinary approach includes ‘demerits’, or detentions, for forgetting pencils, grimacing at teachers or talking in corridors between lessons. The school created much debate recently with regard to the school’s decision to have children whose parents are behind with payments for school meals eat separately from their peers. There’s nothing quite like the threat of a ritual humiliation to focus the mind.

Managing pupil’s behaviour well is of course essential to maintaining good order in the classroom and absolutely necessary for effective learning to take place. The issue I have with this school’s approach is the idea that pupils are motivated through the fear of the consequences of not behaving well – and whether this is effective in the long term. My instinct is that there is a danger of a building resentment amongst pupils that would come out in other ways, especially once they are outside of this system. That said, maybe this approach breeds a healthy respect for authority that supports pupils as they go through life – and insisting pupils walk with their hands behind their backs would certainly extend the life of our corridor displays.

The approach to managing children’s behaviour at Highgate Primary couldn’t be more different. The positive approach to behaviour management is based on the belief that the great majority of children want to behave well, but might need support to do so. Rather than waiting for children to break the rules, we want to catch children being good. We notice this and praise them, they feel good and will want to get more of this positive attention in the future. Other children notice and follow suit, nobody has had to get cross, supervise a detention or write a letter home.

Of course there need to be rules, and there are, but our rules are more a set of principles that boil down to one thing: be kind, and think about the impact your behaviour has on others. If it helps to create a pleasant, caring atmosphere that is conducive to effective learning and high levels of pupil wellbeing, carry on – and if it doesn’t, stop doing it! The aim is for children to behave well because this creates a happy community and is the right thing to do, and establishing this approach amongst our children gives them a set of values that they can take through life.

There will inevitably be times when a child’s behaviour doesn’t meet the expected standard and this needs to be addressed. The starting point is always that, fundamentally, children want to behave well, so when this isn’t happening we want to find out why. Being a school where there is a high level of trust between children and adults, allows honest conversations to take place and support to be provided. Often we find that poor behaviour at school is an indicator that something is not quite right elsewhere. A disciplinary approach might modify the behaviour, but it won’t address the cause.

I am regularly accused of being a bit of a softy when it comes to disciplining children for minor misdemeanours; teachers at the end of their tether sometimes come out of a behaviour meeting in my office frustrated that a child hasn’t been sufficiently told off. That said, I have also been accused of being overtly disciplinarian in response to more serious incidents. The reality is that it’s impossible to get it right all of the time, but with 25 years of experience managing children’s behaviour, I think we get the approach right most of the time. However the important thing is to teach children to understand their responsibility, to help maintain a happy and mutually supportive community, from which they will benefit. The way in which our children behave at Highgate Primary these days suggests this approach is working.

William