Pupil power

Well - not exactly. But they have a say in who teaches them, and how to discipline unruly classmates. Brigid McConville reports
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The Independent Online
Seven-year-old Ben Jones has been punching, kicking and swearing in the playground at Fairfield Junior School, and in the classroom. Perhaps not that unusual for a school in the middle of a problem-laden housing estate slapped on a bleak hillside over Plymouth.

What is extremely unusual - even unique - about Fairfield Junior is that Ben's behaviour is being changed by the efforts of the whole school. Here, children run the discipline, not only mediating between bullies and victims but also sending letters home to parents of problem children.

Children here "own" the system, choosing and negotiating their own rules and awarding each other house points. They even have a say in choosing their teachers.Children meet prospective teachers to find out what qualities and "extras" they could contribute to the school.

Children, staff and parents are quick to say how happy they are with the results, which are largely thanks to the vision of Lorna Farrington, who took over as head five years ago. She is a fortysomething human dynamo, with immense personal authority, Farrah Fawcett hair and a husband in Brittany, where she commutes every weekend by ferry.

When she first took over, "school was not always a safe place to be," she says. "It used to be 10 per cent teaching and 90 per cent crowd control, but now it's vice versa."

Her first step was to impose "assertive discipline", with five clear rules: keep your hands and feet to yourself; no shouting out; follow adults' instructions; no leaving the classroom without permission; and no swearing.

To begin with, those children who continued to be disruptive were bundled into the head's car and taken home - or to their parents' workplaces. "Some parents were a bit bemused," she smiles.

Behaviour in the school improved almost instantly. "The children said, `We like knowing where we stand, but we're always going to give you problems because we don't like adults telling us what to do,'" says Mrs Farrington. "So we said, `Then do it yourselves.' We had nothing to lose."

The children discussed and voted on their daily routines, rules and sanctions. Then Mrs Farrington taught them mediation skills as part of her "bully- busting" strategy, inviting them to elect their own "guardian angels", or mobile mediators.

In the school council, the children learned to ask for "rights" in exchange for responsibilities, while a house system was set up to improve contact between older and younger children. Now house captains can award their schoolmates house points for achievements and good behaviour.

But what if a mediator starts to throw his or her weight around? "In the mediation process you can't take sides," explains Mrs Farrington. But, she says, so far there have been no complaints.

If children break the agreed rules of the classroom, their name goes on the board. If it happens again, the child gets a 10-minute lunchtime detention, and 20 minutes for a third offence. After that they get a white card which means they have to go to Mrs Farrington and get their name in the Thin Ice Book (behaviour register). Parents are called in at that stage. If a child gets three white cards, then he or she is given a yellow card. If they are still misbehaving, they get a red card and may be excluded from school. Only one child has been excluded during Mrs Farrington's tenure.

This week, the mediators wrote to Ben's mum, asking her to come in. "We had a meeting with her and eight house captains and Ben and Mrs Farrington," says Kirsty, one of the child mediators. "We talked to her about Ben's behaviour in a good way, and said he had been getting better and we would like him to be our football team mascot. We agreed that for every house point he gets, his mum is going to give him a penny."

"Some schools would have turfed him out by now," confirms Ben's mother. "But this school is brilliant. He has got such a temper, but they still support him, and so do I. You can go in any time, and they'll listen and talk."

A recent Ofsted inspectors' report has fully endorsed Mrs Farrington's approach. "This is not pupil power," she insists, "but pupils are empowered." The difference is that she is quite clearly in charge: you can hear pins drop when she issues a reprimand. "We probably manipulate them," she admits with equanimity, "but they have a voice while that's going on. Our approach is simply preparation for democracy."

And now it's time for the football team to have its say. An interesting dilemma needs resolution: Lorna Farrington will not let children who misbehave play in the team - but parents are objecting because they want the football team to win.

She sits on the gym floor in a circle with 16 boys, and they agree ground rules (no interrupting, no shouting out) and make an agenda, which includes the washing of football shirts, behaviour - and Ben Jones. After a short discussion they vote unanimously that children can play only if they hand their shirts in at the end of the match.

Next comes a chorus of "not fair!" about being banned from football if you misbehave. "My point of view is that I don't want anyone on the pitch who is not a good ambassador for Highfield," says their head. "Gazza gets sent off if he misbehaves. If it works for the Football League it should work here."

"I reckon if you're bad at home you should miss matches," suggests one boy, demonstrating that children are often keener to punish than adults. The vote on this is eight for, eight against. "That means you've got to be good in school and out. You've got to have a break," remonstrates a team-mate. They vote again: none for, 16 against.

After more discussion it's agreed that children will miss a training if they get a 20-minute detention, and miss a match if they get a white card. A volunteer is asked to write to parents about this decision. From now on, if parents complain, Mrs Farrington can tell them that this was the decision of the football team.

Next: Ben Jones. Do people think it's a good idea that he should be the football team's mascot - as long as he continues to behave?

The vote is a unanimous yes. Then Lorna Farrington congratulates the boys for "giving Ben a chance to succeed", and the meeting is over.

In the corridor we bump into a small, crop-haired boy holding a painted egg-box. It is Ben. Lorna Farrington puts an arm around him and praises his work, while a gaggle of children shepherd us into the classroom to admire his latest picture.

He doesn't speak a single word, but when they tell him it is beautiful, he beams a smile wide enough to make all their efforts worthwhile

`Ben Jones' is a pseudonym.

`Changing Our School' - about Fairfield Junior - is soon to be published by the Institute of Education.