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Student behaviour – Why ‘terms and conditions’ may be more helpful than ‘rules’

Teacher stands at front of class reading from a large book, to convey impression of enforcing classroom rules

If we want students to properly appreciate their place within the school environment, let’s replace the edicts they’re constantly reminded of with formal agreements, suggests Ed Carlin

Ed Carlin
by Ed Carlin
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There’s no question about it – our students arrive at school each day very excited.

These young people are at a time in their lives when they’re surrounded by hundreds of their peers, given relentless schedules and little say as to whether they have to be there or not.

Now I’m no psychologist, but I can confidently propose that this initial sense of excitement and energy can quickly turn into mischief, persistent disruption and antisocial behaviour. And when it does, what happens then…?

The adults in the room

With the latest agreed behavioural policy in hand, staff will seek to correct students, reprimand and outline the ‘consequences’ that the young person’s behaviour will have. And yet the child knows that the consequences are, at best, pretty unrealistic. The adult knows that the child knows this, and everyone moves forward a with a little less respect for each other and the system as a whole.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting here that we don’t challenge negative behaviour in our schools. Of course we do. We should – we must.

But let me present a possible alternative. Where else in our society are we confronted with this notion of ‘rules’ in such a blunt way? Outside of sports (and possibly board games), young people will rarely enter spaces and be immediately welcomed with the message, ‘In this place, the rules are as follows

It just feels so dated and irrelevant, compared to most of the situations and places that young people will typically experience in their lives outside school. Yet when they’re in spaces where certain rules very much apply – a leisure centre, say or a train station – they’ll tend to not behave in the same negative manner which might see from them in schools. Why is that?

I believe it’s because they’re intrinsically aware of how to behave, based on the context of the space they happen to be in. What we must therefore do is aspire to a culture of purpose in our schools, where we regularly share with our students what they’re there for in the first place – namely to learn, develop skills and gain qualifications under the guidance and support of trained professionals.

Playing it safe

This way, everybody knows what they’re playing for. Issues begin to arise, however, when school leaders become so fixated on specific policy, rules and regulations that young people start failing to see the relevance of them.

Countless times throughout my teaching career I’ve heard young people express frustrations and complaints, and raise what I’ve always felt to be fair questions. ‘Why do we have to wear a uniform but staff don’t?’ ‘Why do teachers shout at us when we do something wrong, but nobody’s allowed to shout at them?

I tend to play it safe and answer such questions with the usual excuses – ‘It’s different for staff’ or ‘They’re older and able to make better judgements’ Although, in my heart of hearts, I know there are times when those reasons don’t apply. In fact, much of the inappropriate behaviour I’ve dealt with as a school leader has often been down to negative behaviour from staff, and the mishandling of situations that ought to have been fairly straightforward to address.

I’m now getting to the point where I think we need to challenge – by which I mean really challenge – the rules we impose upon our students, and rethink those so-called ‘consequences’ that we’ll use as justifications for our actions.

Mutual agreements

Young people deserve to have a school experience that reflects the realities they’ll subsequently go on to face over the course of their lives. Of course, we should continue teaching our students how to be respectful, and how to make the most of the learning experiences we’re providing for them – but isn’t it time we gave up the disproportionate consequences they’ll often face for failing to wear a school tie, or walking the wrong way down a one-way corridor?

If we want students to gain a better understanding why they should be in school, what it can offer them and provide reassurance that what they’re being taught is both relevant worthwhile, then what are we missing? Not rules, but terms and conditions.

‘T&Cs’ are used by manufacturers, publishers, venue operators and countless other organisations to set out what they see as a reasonable agreement between them and their buyers or service users. Let’s apply that model to a school, and imagine what would happen if all incoming students were invited to sign a contract clearly outlining certain T&Cs, with responsible adults present.

Having entered into an agreement, there would be far less room for confusion, inconsistency and complaints between staff and students when behavioural issues arise. After all, the school’s teaching and support staff will have all agreed to a set of negotiated, fair and relevant T&Cs when appointed to their roles. Why not require students to do the same?

Nationwide issue

Right now, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the huge impact that negative student behaviour is having on our teachers. It’s a nationwide issue, and one that appears to be only getting worse.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve been in meetings where a parent or carer has said something to the effect of ‘How do you do it? I couldn’t work in a school – it would drive me mad!’

At the same time, I can’t help wondering if many of the problems we’re having are the direct result of an unrealistic, dated and intractable system of rules that must be obeyed, thus causing confusion and conflict for everyone involved, right from the onset…

Ed Carlin is a deputy headteacher at a Scottish secondary school, having worked in education for 15 years and held teaching roles at schools in Northern Ireland and England

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