Dealing with bad behaviour in class | Education | The Guardian

Dealing with bad behaviour in class

When pupils misbehave, how can a teacher get on with the job? Rachel Williams visits a school where the solution is to bring in a behaviour management consultant

Year 9 pupils at Portslade community college take part in a drama workshop
Facing facts: year 9 pupils at Portslade community college take part in a drama workshop with a behaviour management trainer. Photograph: Frank Baron

Late last year, Paul Dix went into a staff meeting at Portslade community college and put £50 in cash on the table. Anyone who could list the school rules, he said, could have it. Easy money, you might think – a gift for overworked, underpaid teachers. But not one of them could manage it.

Eventually – after Dix, an education trainer specialising in behaviour management, said they were staying put until that changed – the staff worked out that Portslade's pupils were bound by no fewer than 38 regulations. It was something of a watershed moment. "Paul's point was, if you can't remember the rules, how do you expect the kids to follow them?" says the assistant principal, Mark Deacon.

Getting the kids to follow the rules is a critical issue for Portslade, a secondary school and sixth-form centre in the suburbs of Brighton. Last year, and the year before, only 25% of its GCSE students achieved the benchmark of five A*-C grades including English and maths. It was placed in the government's National Challenge programme as a result, and last January was declared inadequate by Ofsted.

Now it is crunch time as it waits for the inspectors to descend again any day. If it fails to get a satisfactory rating this time, it is likely to go into special measures.

The 1,100-pupil school has brought in Dix in an attempt to help turn around what Deacon describes as a problem with low-level disruption. No one's chucking chairs, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a major impact, he says. "There's very little really awful behaviour. There is a lot of backchat. In the end that's the stuff that's going to give a teacher a nervous breakdown."

Portslade had been stuck in the past, he believes. "When I joined the school 18 months ago it felt as if I'd gone back 20 years – it was very old-fashioned, with perhaps 1970s values."

Ofsted reflected that in its report, saying there was insufficient breadth to the curriculum, while the teaching was lacking in challenge. The school's management decided that changing behaviour, to help teachers feel able to be more inventive and take more risks in the classroom, would be a significant part of reversing the decline. So when the local authority offered to finance the sessions with Dix, they jumped at the chance. A day's coaching session one to one with up to four staff is £900, while a day for 150 people is £2,000.

A leader in a growing field of consultants going into schools aiming to sort out such problems, Dix has given training to teachers on how to handle difficult behaviour, and spent a day doing a drama workshop with a year 9 tutor group teachers had found particularly challenging.

And then there are those rules. In the end, the staff stripped them down to five basic instructions. They can be seen on freshly minted posters throughout the faded corridors of the cramped 1920s building.

One of Dix's key messages, outlined to Portslade staff at a training session in December, centres on remaining un­ruffled and steely in the face of misbehaviour, in contrast to offering warm praise and reward at other times.

"The core of the training we do is about sucking the emotion out of difficult situations," he says. "Traditionally what teachers have done is shouted at students. We're trying to get them out of the idea that it's about being the biggest lion in the jungle. You need to use positive management.

"The way you turn the culture around is teaching students that if you're rude, you're not going to get the reward of [the teacher] going red in the face, you're actually going to get a cold, pretty emotionless response."

Graded sanctions, beginning with sitting out from the group for a minute, should be used, with pupils being given clear choices between righting the situation and what will happen if they don't.

Dix gets the staff to pair off and play "assertive tennis", with one pretending to be a lippy student and another acting as a teacher trying to come up with a response that will silence them. The exercise is designed to get them to take their time before answering back.

He also encourages them to imagine how their pupils may feel at times, presenting them with a passage of seemingly impenetrable dialect and asking them to continue it for another 200 words. Within minutes, staff are playing with their mobiles, doodling and generally mucking around.

"Every single teacher that I give this to reacts in the same way," Dix says. "They're experienced, qualified people, they meet a learning challenge they can't understand, and within two minutes they're refusing to do it. They're the same as students. You say to teachers, can you imagine having a reading age of 11 at the age of 14? That's what it feels like, every minute of the day. Is it any wonder that you kick your chair back and say 'fuck it, I'm off'?

"The point we're trying to make is about what the core of bad behaviour is. It's not bad parenting, or drug culture, or 24-hour news coverage. It's people being bored and disengaged."

He also outlines an alternative system of punishments based on restorative justice that Portslade will trial with its year 7 pupils from the summer term. Instead of being given detention, students take part in a 15-minute "reparation" discussion about their behaviour with a teacher, agreeing how to make amends and make up for the lost learning. If they break the deal, they will face sanctions.

Dix urges the staff not to get the idea they are going down a "fluffy route" with this relatively easy-sounding option. "It's not soft, it's not leftie, it's not fluffy and 60s. It can still be rigorous. Getting people to engage in a conversation with teachers is not airy-fairy. But it works because it forces people to sit down and ... deal with the incident calmly. Detention doesn't work. Never has done."

The first few weeks, he warns, will be tricky. But then it will start to calm down. He urges the staff to persist through the hard times, and accept there is no quick fix. And they seem to lap up his words of wisdom. "It's been fantastic," says science teacher Paul Meredith. "I think the school had maybe lost its way a bit. It needed an injection of fresh ideas."

Stuart McLaughlin, who was appointed as principal in September and is driving the process of change, says he feels nothing but support for the work from his staff.

Dix, 40, taught for 10 years before setting up Pivotal Education in 2001 with a colleague. Primary-trained, he started out as a head of drama, at the age of 22, at a tough comprehensive in Nuneaton, and was a head of faculty in inner-city Birmingham by the time he quit. He did so, he says, not because he was fed up with teaching, but because he thought things could be done better, and he could influence more children by going into training.

His early years inform his current work. Excluded from school and in trouble with the police as a teenager ("all the problems of an angry young man") he can remember only one teacher who could manage his behaviour – "and lots who just wanted to be the biggest lion, and they wouldn't win".

From the team of just two, Pivotal has grown to a staff of 19, including 14 trainers offering workshops in areas ranging from safeguarding to stress management.

And business is booming – it has doubled in size every 12 months for the last few years, with recent increases fuelled partly, Dix reckons, by Ofsted's recent toughening of its requirements on behaviour. The company's website is awash with glowing testimonials; he has recently become Teachers TV's behaviour expert and is set to talk to the education select committee about initial teacher training.

There are around four or five big players in the area, says Dix, so it's still what he describes as a niche market. But demand is rising and more people are "tinkering round the edges".

Is what's being offered a miracle cure, or just common sense – as Dix himself suggests? Alan Steer, the government's "behaviour tsar", believes that while there is a place for challenging external training, it shouldn't take precedence over what is really important for producing good behaviour: good teaching.

"There's this constant belief that we've got to find the magic button, but the truth is we know what works," he says. "What we don't always address is the fact that we don't always do it." He also urges schools to examine the credentials of any prospective trainers carefully: "There's a lot of people selling snake oil around education."

Following the inset day with teachers, Dix returns to Portslade for his session with the year 9 group. He has ditched his suit for a hoodie and odd socks.

At first, the students are attentive, enjoying the trust games he gets them to play and his performance in a larval mask. Dix offers praise and encouragement. But when they have to put the masks on themselves, the rumbles of discontent begin. While many of the group take to the character acting, several of the girls – their makeup and hair immaculate – kick up a fuss. One refuses to put on a mask.

There is a growing air of dwindling concentration, with girls constantly slipping away from the group to have a sip of water, touch up their makeup or check their mobile phones. Some of the boys are now playing up. Dix calmly warns them about their behaviour and begins using minor sanctions. They seem bewildered by his approach more than anything, and, increasingly, exasperated.

By the end of the lesson, at least four pupils are no longer taking part. Two have been told to sit out by Dix after using up all their chances, and two have dropped out of the activity of their own accord. Dix gathers the remaining participants around and congratulates them.

But he adds: "It's really clear as a stranger that you've got 90% working and 10% who haven't got those behaviours that enable you to learn."

Afterwards, he admits he was surprised by what he saw. "It's the bailout that's unusual – there's work to do there. The culture change has got to be that if you step out, that's a really serious thing to do. We need to give them other strategies.

"The teachers need to challenge the kids more, but as soon as you challenge them, they bail out. It's more polite than what some children do, but it's just as destructive."

Nonetheless, Dix thinks Portslade can change. "I describe it as the Manchester City of schools, the sleeping giant. The community love it, the kids love it. What's missing is not the belief or the pride."

Deacon is already encouraged. Later in the day, he reports passing a classroom to see a teacher calmly explaining to a pupil why he was in trouble, and her target cry out furiously: "You're always talking about the fucking rules, miss!"

He might have broken rule 4 ("be polite and speak kindly"), but for Deacon the outburst was a result. "The message is getting through."

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