A yukky Americanism? No way!

Assertive discipline dramatically transformed one school. Simon Midgley reports
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The Independent Online
Four years ago Bebington High School near Birkenhead, a mixed 11-19 school with 1,000 pupils, was worried about its declining popularity, faltering local reputation, the quality of its exam results and the incidence of pupil misbehaviour.

But since introducing an American programme of assertive discipline in September 1992, pupil behaviour has been transformed, exam results have improved dramatically and Bebington is now highly sought after.

Michael Williams, head of the upper school, says: "There is now a more consistent approach to the consequences of bad behaviour. The pupils know where they stand whereas previously one teacher might give them a detention for forgetting an exercise book, another teacher might go to the other extreme and not give a detention until a fight broke out.

"I thought it was one of those yukky American schemes, but having put it into practice it has done the school as lot of good."

Bebington, the result of a merger between a girls' and a boys' secondary modern in 1986, experienced teething problems in settling down after amalgamation on the site of the girls' school.

Boys and girls found themselves learning alongside each other for the first time and the school experienced a spate of minor behavioural problems. While casting around for ways of improving pupil behaviour and school discipline, one of the deputy heads, Paul Shryane, read about an American theory of assertive discipline that was being piloted in Bristol and London primary schools.

After contacting the Bristol-based company, Behaviour Management, which pioneered assertive discipline in Britain, the school paid pounds 1,000 for a day's staff training. Bob Burns, the school's headteacher, describes the money as "the best pounds 1,000 the school has ever spent".

The idea is simple and smacks of good parenting techniques. Good behaviour is rewarded by praise and a tiered structure of incentives. These carrots are counterbalanced by a clearly spelt out hierarchy of penalties for misbehaviour.

A set of rules is clearly displayed in every classroom setting out what is expected of pupils, along with a list of rewards for those keeping the rules and penalties for those breaking them.

The rules are: pupils must arrive on time to lessons and enter the room quietly; they must remain in their seats unless asked to move; come to lessons properly equipped; listen to and follow instructions the first time given; raise their hand before answering or speaking; and treat others, their work and equipment with respect.

A first infringement leads to the teacher automatically writing the child's name on the blackboard, the second to a five-minute detention, the third to a 15-minute detention, the fourth to a 30-minute detention and the last to removal from the classroom, the pupil's parents being informed and isolation from peers and friends.

On the positive side pupils who perform exceptionally well in class, whether in terms of academic achievement or behaving in an exemplary manner, are awarded certificates of merit. Others who behave themselves according to the rules during a lesson are rewarded with an R on their records. Depending on the subject six or more Rs lead to a bronze letter of commendation that they can take home to their parents, 12 or so to a silver and 18 to a gold. Both the letters of commendation and the certificates - which are worth two Rs on the pupil's record - form part of the student's national records of achievement and will eventually be seen by employers. At the end of each term those with the most gold certificates have the chance of being given, or winning in a grand draw, a special prize.

This term 12 pupils will be rewarded with an outing to a bowling alley and a meal with the headteacher. At the end of last year one pupil won a free mountain bike worth pounds 180 and another a personal stereo valued at pounds 60. Other prizes have included the chance to go straight to the front of the lunch queue, to watch video films at lunchtime or have a free day out at Alton Towers.

At the end of its first year there was a 100 per cent improvement in the number of pupils achieving achieving A-Cs in 5 or more GCSEs. The percentage rose from 11 per cent in 1992 to 23 per cent in 1993. This year it was 24.1 per cent.

This year 400 parents chose Bebington as their first or second preferred secondary school - 117 parents opted for Bebington as a first choice rather than either of the two local grammar schools - and a recent open evening attracted more than 1,000 prospective parents.

Mr Burns says that many pupils who enter the school with a reading age of 7 or 8 are now leaving with GCSEs at grades A,B or C.

He claims that assertive discipline has led to an enormous improvement in pupil behaviour. Minor behavioural problems have virtually disappeared, pupils understand what is expected of them and and staff stress levels have been dramatically reduced.