In 2016, although our school was improving, we needed to do more. Faculty leaders reported spending too much time reactively managing behaviour; staff saw a need for higher expectations and greater consistency; students were not achieving enough. And, when we were judged by The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... as ‘requiring improvement’ for the third time in October, we knew that it wasn’t gradual change we needed. We needed transformation.
Visiting exceptional schools, seeing what could be achieved by students just like ours, we realised that it was true – our expectations were low. The selective system in Kent meant that our students were often already disadvantaged in comparison to their grammar school counterparts. We needed to expect more. Starting with a blank sheet, we decided what school we would create if we were starting from scratch. Bennett (2017) talks about the fact that good school leaders are conscious architects of their school cultures, which have as foundations what is behaviourally acceptable every day. Some in education argue that classroom behaviour is down to the individual teacher. However, this approach makes it difficult for all, especially the most vulnerable. What if expectations are different in each of the classrooms that they visit? Culture is more than individual teachers working in isolation. Culture is every teacher expecting the same and working together. Culture is consistency. Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2012) presents humans as habitual, showing that communal habits can be influenced as a means of influencing the group. So we decided to focus on absolute clarity, using clear, common systems to create habits that would become our social norms.
In April 2020, Durrington hosted a virtual ResearchEd. Daniel Muijs (2020) focused on the idea that behaviours need to be explicitly taught in order to become routines, saying that ‘this is especially the case for behaviours that are repeated regularly throughout the school day’. This was the path that we took in 2017. We agreed which aspects we would script, teach and repeat in order to become habit. We created consistent procedures for entering a classroom, narrated and counted down by every teacher in the same way. ‘Entry 1’ means that students should line up in silence; ‘Entry 2’: they walk silently to their seats; ‘Entry 3’: they pass their books along. There is no wandering around distributing books while students meander in. We knew from conversations with our vulnerable students that noisy, chaotic lesson transitions made them anxious. Our transitions are now calm and quick so that our students feel secure. Our system ensures punctuality to lessons so that no learning time is lost. And every child is greeted by the teacher at the start of every lesson. It is a truly positive way to start a class.
We scripted a shorthand for lesson behaviour, using ‘STAR’. Taken from Lemov (2010), our STAR stands for: Sit up straight and listen; Track the speaker or the text; Arm up straight to answer; Respect silence. All teachers ask for STAR in the same way: ‘I’d like STAR behaviours in 3, in 2, in 1… and STAR.’ Our students know exactly what it means and you only ever have to ask once for the room (no matter how large) to fall silent. In fact, use of ‘silence’ is key to our approach. Silence means silence. There is no grey area, as there is with asking students to ‘be quiet’. Silence is reliably consistent.
Our routines are shared, clear and detailed. We script them. We remind parents, we remind students in assemblies every term, we remind staff in briefings – because it is not about getting it right on day one; it’s about getting it right every day.
With clear expectations come consistent consequences. When implementing these, we have considered whether we are being fair, applying sanctions to every student, exactly the same, no matter their background. We believe that the consequences of an action should be exactly as expected – every time. In forums, our students are clear that they want fairness. They want to know where they stand and believe that everyone should be treated the same. School, for many of our students, is their safe space. So consistency is not about being ‘harsh’. We are not looking for misdemeanours; we are making it easy for students to get things right. We are certain, not severe, applying the rules in a predictable way so that students always know where they stand. With our systems, consistency ensures that teachers are calm and in control. We never raise voices, use sarcasm or rhetorical questions as mechanisms for managing classroom behaviour. Our teachers can teach without disruption.
However, behind these high expectations, which are always the same, the support given to specific children in order to help them reach these is always bespoke. We have a whole system individualising what students and families need in order to meet our expectations, from an amazing welfare team to a brilliant SEN team. So, we are consistent in our sanctions and individual in our support.
But our culture is about more than this. Ryan and Deci’s (2000) work on self-determination talks about ‘connectedness’. By fostering a sense of belonging to this collective identity, we all improve. Dan Pink’s Drive (2009) shares the importance of purpose, discussing the human instinct to want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. So we have worked hard to create this sense of purpose and togetherness. Consistent, common language serves to create this and is bigger than simply the language of routine. Common language creates socially accepted norms. And while it might be pleasant to imagine that this would evolve naturally, arising from the tone you set, when you are turning around a school, planning this language helps to create culture. Through the language, you are choosing the collective voice with which your team will speak.
So, we started our journey in January 2017. By summer 2019, 100 per cent of our staff said that they were proud and happy to work here. And our students are the ones asking for the bar to be raised even higher. High expectations of behaviour, silence and transition procedures are all means to an end, and we never confuse them with the end itself. But our consistency is key. It reinforces our collective identity, creates our social norms and benefits our most vulnerable students the most. They are not limited or constrained by their background. We are consistent – out of love.
Bennett T (2017) Creating a culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour. Independent review of behaviour in schools. Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/602487/Tom_Bennett_Independent_Review_of_Behaviour_in_Schools.pdf (accessed 9 April 2020).
Duhigg C (2012) The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
Lemov D (2010) Teach like A Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Muijs D (2020). Behaviour is not attained by chance. Ofsted’s research on managing behaviour. ResearchED Loom Durrington. 5th April 2020.
Pink D (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Ryan RM and Deci EL (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55(1): 68–78.