How one school tamed its pupils

Fran Abrams on a disciplinary system with many fans among teachers - and some critics
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The Independent Online
Thomas Gamuel primary school, surrounded by tower blocks, looks like a typical inner city school: two-thirds of the children come from homes sufficiently poor to qualify for free school meals.

It is exactly the sort of school where, according to popular opinion, teachers are likely to be coping with disturbed and difficult children, struggling to keep control in classrooms and playgrounds. But not here. The children are quiet and polite; exclusions are rarely necessary. Thomas Gamuel - in Walthamstow, east London - believes that it has the answer to the problems of schools discipline. It is based on a system invented in California in the 1970s and it has now been sold to nearly one in 10 schools in England.

The system is called Assertive Discipline and it is based on two main principles. First, it is at least as important to make a fuss about good behaviour as it is to make a fuss about bad: so children may get rewards, including parties and trips to football matches. Second, all rules, sanctions and rewards should be clear and staff should apply them consistently at all times.

The programme is marketed commercially by a firm called Behaviour Management Ltd and is now operating in more than 2,000 schools. More than 80 of England's 112 local education authorities have taken it up and 1,200 people are qualified to train schools in its methods.

Earlier this month, teachers' unions heard calls for difficult pupils to be banished to special units to protect members from increased levels of violence. Schools are being forced to respond to such protests with new, more up-beat discipline policies aimed at keeping problem children in the classroom.

At Thomas Gamuel, staff say they have almost eradicated their problems and claim that any school can do the same.

When Geoff Hoare, the head, arrived at the school nine years ago, fresh from the headship of a school in Hertfordshire, he found that even supply staff were reluctant to teach there. "It was a school which was almost under siege," Mr Hoare said. "Half the staff were called by their first names and half by their surnames. Teachers were almost barricading themselves in for self-preservation and protection."

Now all that has changed. There have been only seven half-day exclusions for bad behaviour this year, four of them involving the same five year-old boy with speech difficulties who bites his classmates. Three years ago, there were 35. The school inspectors are due this autumn but staff are confident of receiving a clean bill of health.

A list of rewards is displayed on all classroom walls along with the school rules, and children know exactly what will happen if they misbehave. A minor offence such as failing to listen to instructions, calling out, running or name-calling will bring a warning. A more serious offence or a repetition of a previous one results in a talk with Mr Hoare or a letter home to parents. Violence leads to exclusion for the rest of the day. Good behaviour wins stickers which can be collected towards prizes such as a school mug or a class party.

Thomas Gamuel, which has 500 pupils, paid pounds 450 for staff training and materials in Assertive Discipline, though a large secondary school could pay up to pounds 2,500. It is hard to find anyone who is fiercely critical of the scheme - whose American founder, Lee Canter, still has links with its British arm - but there are reservations.

Some senior members of the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, have seen Assertive Discipline in action and say that the principles of setting clear expectations and applying them consistently are sound. But they also feel that such a tightly controlled system can lead to children being conditioned to respond to rewards and sanctions rather than learning self-discipline. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says the system places heavy demands on staff and does not deal with the worst trouble-makers who, he argues, should be sent to special units.

"These systems require an enormous amount of work on the part of teachers," he said. "They could drive a lot of people to early death and early retirement." The rewards offered by many schools are modest but in some places they can be substantial. At St Chad's comprehensive school in Tilbury, Essex, a similar system is in operation but children who build up a large number of credits are offered tickets to see West Ham or a trip to the cinema.

However, this school does not make such sweeping claims for its success. Although the number of temporary exclusions is dropping - from 90 two years ago to 28 so far this year - there is still a rump of very bad behaviour which is hard to shift.

The deputy head, Brian Jones, says the rewards work well for more than 95 per cent of pupils, but they are not a panacea. The school has still been forced to exclude three pupils permanently this year, but in each case it has been commended by its local authority for exploring every other possibility first.

"But what about the pupils who get involved with drugs and are inclined to want to sell them to their peers?" asks Mr Jones "How much of that can you tolerate in a school? How can you tolerate physical abuse towards staff? Rewards will bring a tremendous amount of pupils that are on the line back from it, but they won't help you out on that."