Getting serious about behaviour

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:
Image: iStock

Liam Donnison speaks to London headteacher George McMillan about his approach to behaviour policy

In 2011, an Ofsted inspector described Eltham Green School as “feral”.

The comment reflected the desperate state the London school was in at that stage. It had been placed in special measures after it was deemed inadequate in 29 out of the 31 categories that Ofsted used at the time.

Within a term of principal George McMillan and executive principal Chris Tomlinson arriving in January 2011, the situation was turned around.

Eltham Green was transformed into Harris Academy Greenwich soon after and by 2014, behaviour – and the school as a whole – was graded outstanding.

“Ofsted described the school informally as ‘feral’ and for the people who worked there it was completely and utterly out of control,” explained Mr McMillan, who remains at the helm as principal.

“When we joined the school, there were 153 lates at the gate and at any one time there would be at least 100 children out of lessons at any point in the day, fighting in the playground, smoking in the toilets or hanging around in the corridors. In one incident, a child chased another up six flights of stairs, beat him unconscious and set his hair on fire. Swearing at teachers was endemic. Assaults on teachers weren’t a daily occurrence but they certainly weren’t abnormal.”

Their early priority was to crack down hard on the serious behaviour problems and quickly raise attainment. The objective was met within months, setting the school on a course that it maintains today. GCSE and A level results have been in the top 20 per cent in England for four years in a row and the school is now heavily over-subscribed.

“I have very strong views about how to tackle poor behaviour but I understand that different ways are also appropriate,” Mr McMillan said. “This isn’t the way, it’s my way.”

Make sure your policies reflect your beliefs

“My belief is that every single child, regardless of background, should and will behave. They should treat staff with respect, first because staff are adults and they are children and second because we are in a position of authority and they are not.

“I have great banter with the kids but I have a set of beliefs around behaviour that can be seen as old-fashioned. Other leaders will have a different approach that is appropriate to their style, their school and the community it serves. The important thing is that whatever your beliefs around tackling behaviour issues, they should be consistent with your core beliefs about behaviour management.

“For example, I believe it is deeply unfair and indeed immoral that one badly behaved student should ruin the education and lives of 29 of their peers day-in, day-out. For me, that’s not ‘inclusion’ and you risk failing all the children if this is happening. Students causing problems aren’t just kicked out of school – our permanent exclusions are below the national average – but you can’t allow constant bad behaviour.

“We have 33 interventions we can make with students, from life coaching to working with the Stephen Lawrence Foundation, and everything in between: all interventions are centred around helping the student manage their own behaviour. Indeed, I spend countless hours mentoring and coaching our most challenging students. But in my view, you sometimes have to be prepared to use the ultimate sanction and either use long-term effective alternative education, or permanently exclude as a last resort.”

Identify the source of the problems

“Once you’re clear on your mindset it’s time to investigate where the problems and pinch points are. For example, is it change-overs, breaks or tutor time? Who are the alpha males and females you need to get on your side? Are there problems with ‘sink sets’? We set in some subjects but I’m not a fan as they can lead to poor behaviour and a lack of role modelling in the lower ability groups. Is there a way to make those sets smaller and turn them into groups of four instead of having 20 in one lower ability group? And look at who is teaching these groups – these groups should have the best teachers because they are the kids who need it most.”

Behaviour infrastructure and team

“Get an isolation room to hold students while you investigate incidents, and decide who will monitor it – it should be a silent, highly disciplined place. If there is an incident deal with it straight away and any sanctions should be applied on the same day – students don’t care much about getting a sanction the following day or week. You’ll also need an external exclusion room, manned by a member of the senior leadership. And develop a template for behaviour letters home. We decided to exclude some pupils but we did this after close consultation with local PRUs and the local authority – we had their full support.

“When you exclude students, there should be a clear strategy around their reintegration. Remember that you and your senior leadership team colleagues are there to create and maintain systems that enable teachers to teach, leaders to lead and kids to learn. You can’t hold staff to account for the quality of teaching when they can’t even teach anything anyway because of school-wide misbehaviour. Get robust systems in place to support your staff so you can then work together on improving the quality of teaching across the school.”

Be on call, every minute of the day

“We always have someone from senior leadership team on call all day for any behaviour issues. For me someone senior should always be on the ‘shop floor’, in corridors and classrooms and helping teachers sort any behaviour issues. An on-call system is important – there should be an easy way for a teacher to message reception who can then summon a senior member of your team to be in that classroom within three minutes to remove the child from the classroom and let the teacher get on with teaching.

“My view is that you shouldn’t expect teachers to deal with poor behaviour. If a student is back-chatting, swearing at another student or refusing to move at this school then these are on-call incidents that would lead to their removal from the classroom and a sanction applied.

“Of course, low-level behaviour management should be a teacher’s bread and butter and we train them how to do it well, but as soon as it escalates then we are there to support. My staff don’t even run the detentions for an on-call, to help manage their workload – they simply collect the student from detention to conduct an ‘RJ’ (restorative justice) and reset expectations for the following lesson.

“Outside, at the end of every day there needs to be a system of patrolling gate and bus stops. We are on gate duty every morning at 8am and at 3:30pm in wind and rain snow, monitoring behaviour.”

Get the message out – and be consistent

“Be clear and simple with your messages around behaviour with your staff and your students. We held INSETs focused on behaviour policy so that everyone was clear and we worked tirelessly with staff who needed extra support. We displayed ‘behaviour ladders’ in every classroom that spelled out to students the consequences of poor behaviour at every stage. We videoed interactions to train staff and ensure consistency. We worked with student council to make sure they felt our policies were fair and they felt included. Communicate clearly with parents and make sure they know we have their children’s best interests at heart.”

  • Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network, a DfE-licensed provider of National Professional Qualifications for school leaders.

Further information

George McMillan shared his perspectives as part of Best Practice Network’s programme of head-led school improvement webinars. For details, visit
www.bestpracticenet.co.uk/head-led-webinars


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