Binary Behaviour: Preparing the Ground for School Improvement

What’s the first thing a new headteacher should focus on when taking over a school?  Perhaps a renewed focus on teaching and learning, an overhaul of the assessment system or maybe some structural and personnel changes?

Yet having worked closely with a few headteachers taking on new schools I would argue that the most important thing a head can do is to establish strong cultural norms through a new behaviour code.  Once a culture of excellent behaviour has been established and consolidated, all further strategies and interventions can be planted on fertile ground.  Conversely, launching a new teaching and learning strategy without establishing sound behavioural norms is like trying to plant tropical fruit in a boggy potato field.

I’ve seen the power of behaviour for myself recently as I’ve worked with the newly appointed Executive Principal Ben Parnell at a school in west London.  This is Ben’s fifth headship, and in each one he starts with a new behaviour system he calls Binary Behaviour.  As the name suggests, this is a zero tolerance approach to behaviour based on the premise that you are either behaving appropriately or you are not.  No grey area, no negotiation.  Poor behaviour in the classroom is met with a single warning.  On the second offence, the student is sent out to spend 24 hours in an isolation room.  Binary behaviour is accompanied by a public guarantee to parents that their child will be taught in classrooms free of disruption.

Binary Behaviour reminds me of Tom Sherrington’s Impeccable Behaviour system which he’s launched in his first year at Highbury Grove.  Similarly, in her new book Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership Dame Sally Coates says this:

“It can seem almost unfashionable to focus on behaviour as a school leader… Yet if you can eliminate this low-level disruption, this background crackle of discord, everything that teachers and leaders do in a school on a daily basis will be more effective. Leading a school where low-level disruption is the norm is like driving with the handbrake on, and for a new headteacher it’s the first issue to tackle.”

Of course, it’s not easy to change established patterns of behaviour.  A new behaviour code needs careful planning, plenty of publicity and 100% buy-in from staff.  Even then, no behaviour system is watertight, and the system will need careful monitoring, tweaking and reinforcing following its launch.  Perhaps more challenging is the battle of wills that a new behaviour code will inevitably trigger.  Parents will complain that their child’s learning is being hampered, students will quickly find some gaps in the system and some teachers might resist the strict compliance that the code requires.

But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And the good news is that human behaviour, especially across a group of people, is incredibly malleable and responds quickly to heightened expectations.  Ben Parnell assures me that in the three schools where he’s launched Binary Behaviour he’s seen immediate and sustained improvements in classroom behaviour.  A ‘new normal’ was established.

Appropriately, given its name, there were two sides to Binary Behaviour in west London this week.  In classrooms, teachers revelled in the calm compliance ushered in by the new system.  The flip side of this was the isolation room, where dozens of students learnt the hard way that this new code of conduct was here to stay.  Predictably, the system was tested, for example when making lunchtime arrangements for the students in isolation.  But Ben and his team stood firm, and I’m convinced that referrals to the isolation room will fall in the weeks ahead.

Economists talk about the multiplier effect – the recurring and increasing benefits of a stimulus in economic demand.  Binary behaviour yields its own multiplier effect: raising the behavioural bar will increase the productivity of every single lesson, every single day.  So a 5% improvement in classroom behaviour, if we can put it like that, can be multiplied by the 50,000 or so lessons that take place in an average sized school in any given year (presuming that teachers are able to capitalise on the new standards of behaviour to foster deeper and richer learning).  The sum of these marginal gains is immense.

Focusing on behaviour might not be very fashionable, and a new headteacher might be keen to show her strategic mettle rather than get bogged down in behaviour.  But establishing a culture of impeccable behavioural norms is a gift that keeps on giving.  As the management guru Peter Drucker says, we can strategise all we want, but ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

Postscript, the mechanics of Binary Behaviour:

  • One act of poor behaviour in class results in student’s name on the board
  • If the same student offends again, s/he is removed from the class.
  • The teacher records this on SIMs and the student has 5 minutes to make his/her way to the isolation room
  • Students spend 24 hours in the isolation room. This applies whichever period they arrive.  So a student arriving Period 2 on a Wednesday will be in the isolation room until the end of Period 2 on the Thursday
  • On arrival in the isolation room the students complete a reflection sheet explaining why they are there and what they could do better next time. Students then work in silence through prepared packs for English, Maths and Science
  • Students stay in the isolation room 30 minutes beyond the end of the school day. During this time, the teacher who has referred them comes to the isolation room and discusses the issue with the students.  The reflection sheet forms the basis of this conversation.
  • Additional sanctions, such as fixed term exclusions, are issued to students who fail to make their way to the isolation room or who misbehave in the isolation room.
  • Students in the isolation room take their breaks and lunch at different times to the rest of the school
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