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3. Taking Back Control

Updated: Jan 21

OFSTED distorts the picture. It scapegoats schools like Eydon Vale. Some Academy Trusts buy into this. They pick Heads who will bully the staff. The Heads expect the teachers to bully the kids. The awkward ones are mown down, like a lawnmower flattening the grass. Children who break the rules are penned up in punishment carrels, sent home or taken off roll. Taking control like this may produce short-term gains in published exam results. But it stops the pupils thinking for themselves and effectively lowers the school leaving age. As for the teachers, the dropout rate is appalling. A constant churn of inexperienced staff adds to the turbulence.


But as I’d told Eydon Vale’s interviewing panel, there is a way of reframing indiscipline. Schools can be transformed through praise and rewards. It works just as well with teachers as it does with pupils, though it is more difficult to convince adults of this than children. From that November, my previous head allowed me one day a week at Eydon Vale to introduce myself. As I told its staff, “The official recommendation is four examples of positive reinforcement to every single bit of blame. I’m telling you: good teachers use 10 or more to one.


“I will be just as positive with you, when I visit your classrooms. I will know how well you are doing, because I will come knocking on your door at least twice a week! Some of you will be thinking, ‘This is worse than China.’ There, Heads visit once a week. If you don’t want me to come in at that moment, though, show me your palm. I quite understand. ‘We all stand alone together’. I will come back later that morning. I shall be teaching my own classes. You are welcome to drop in on me, too.”


The pupils got the point immediately. At a meeting of the School Council that November a Year 7 said, “Good teachers have clear boundaries. They know what they will or will not accept. There ought to be something like doggie snacks for those who work hard.”


“The reason I’ve called you here today is to ask your help with the doggie snacks idea,” I told the School Council. “I want to devise a new rewards policy and I need you to tell me what the pupils at Eydon Vale would prefer. I am convinced that there are lots of kids just like you, who want to get on, but their needs are ignored. It’s the misbehaving minority who get the teachers’ attention. What Eydon Vale needs is a set of rewards for pupils who can sit still, write at length and join in discussions in a thoughtful, constructive way. So, we need a menu of reinforcers that teach the little things like facing their teachers and listening to instructions, as well as the big things like winning the football cup.”


For the School Council, the only real debate was about the weighting of big and small rewards. Some of the older pupils preferred a weekly lottery. Everyone who had been good would get a ticket for the big draw. The Year 7s objected. “The work of good individuals will never be recognised if the rewards are few and dependent on chance. There are lots of kids who want to get on, but who need encouragement. Their little, everyday acts like concentrating in class, going the extra mile with homework and opening the door to a kid in a wheelchair need to be recognised.”


In the end, the School Council voted for a menu of reinforcers that was heavily weighted to minor rewards. I estimated we needed to budget £4000 for two terms. Rhiannon Starr accepted this without argument.


This is a fictional, interactive blog. My illustrators and I will be creating a new instalment twice a month over the next year. Email turbulent.school@gmail.com and I will edit my text.