I first visited Monks Park School in 1989. I was 11 years old and looking around secondary schools with my mum and dad. It was freezing cold and exactly like what I thought a secondary school should look like. There was a sort of Grange-Hill-esque feel to the place. I could almost imagine crying in the corridor after having my head held down an unflushed toilet. In the end, I undertook my secondary education at a different comprehensive school, based purely on the fact that I didn’t know anybody going to Monks Park and I didn’t like the windows at Cotham School – a perfectly rational decision, at the age of 11.
I started my PGCE at the University of Bristol in 2003. There were five schools on the placement list that put fear through the hearts of the trainees. Monks Park was one of them. It had a reputation for really, really bad behaviour. We heard unrepeatable urban myths that shocked us and secretly enthralled us. As it happens, none of us were allocated to Monks Park that year. We cut our teeth elsewhere and things moved on.
Then, in 2005, the school had a PFI rebuild. It was rebranded as Orchard School Bristol (OSB). We used to have our Heads of English LA hub meetings there. A friend of mine worked there shortly after this point and said the new build had helped things move forward – new name, fresh building, fresh start – but this was short-lived. Low-level disruption, that often comes hand-in-hand with catchments of social deprivation, was still presenting itself at the school. More recently, in 2013, one of my short-placement PGCE students undertook her second placement there. I received new from her that while the staff were doing their best, the kids were ‘tearing her apart’ – her words, not mine.
On Friday 20th January 2017, I visited OSB once more, this time with dual purpose. I was meeting with the English team so that we could get some external moderation and collaboration done. I also asked if I could see their new Ready to Learn (RtL) system in place. I had heard great things about RtL – a few other local schools had implemented it but I didn’t really understand how it functioned or why it mattered so much. I walked away from my visit with total and utter conviction that this school was a school transformed. I met and spoke to hardworking and happy pupils with a clear sense of purpose and a shared vision. I met teachers who loved – yes, loved – their school. I met teachers who expressed that they had been looking for new jobs until RtL started up, and now they didn’t want to work anywhere else. It was incredible.
It was incredible. I repeat this because there is so much in the press and on social media at the moment about behaviour, effective management of behaviour, systems, #noexcuses and so forth. It’s hard to escape and it’s difficult to envisage how a decent system could work. OSB have done something amazing because they have managed to create a system which is not punitive. It does not have punishment at the centre of it, but learning, relationships and restoration. Their RtL system has created the right conditions in the classroom for teachers to teach and pupils to learn.
Careful preparation: staff survey and visits
I was welcomed to the school by Kathleen McGillycuddy, Deputy Head at Orchard. She explained how the school came to introduce RtL:
‘We’d been ‘satisfactory’, then R.I. for years. We were fighting for that ‘good’. Then, in October 2015, we got it! That date is engraved in my mind. Getting a ‘good’ took the pressure off a bit. We could focus on improving our school, not just proving we knew what we were doing to Ofsted. We conducted a staff survey, to see how people were feeling about work. When it came to staff perceptions of behaviour, the results were awful.’
If I’m being honest, I hate conducting surveys – the emotive part of me gets instantly defensive when the results don’t give me a picture I like. I have utter respect to the SLT for embracing this with such openness.
Kathleen showed me the survey results. It was pretty awful. It was RAG’d – and predominantly red. Staff felt frustrated with behaviour and although ‘reviews’ of behaviour (including the recent OfSTED report) found it to be good, they felt that it was anything but good. They felt that it wasn’t managed consistently or in a way that supported their teaching.
The decision was made to look at RtL, with a view to implementing and embedding it properly for the next academic year. Kathleen explained, ‘in education, most things we do or try are just fire-fighting. New incentives are thought about for about a month at most and not launched properly. They fizzle out. We wanted to do this properly.’
The senior leadership team, teachers, governors and pupils went to visit other schools with similar programmes in place. Henbury School is one such place – you can read about it here – as is Bristol Brunel Academy. The OSB staff told me that they’re grateful to colleagues in both those schools for their time and support in considering RtL.
‘We felt it was important to involve everybody in it, right from the start. We were really thorough. We ran test days in the summer and every single child in the school community knew what was going on.’
How it all works:
There are four key rules:
- Follow instructions promptly
- Remain on task
- Listen when others are speaking
- Always speak appropriately
These are on display everywhere. The students know the rules – several students explained them to me.
The Ready to Learn Room
If a pupil chooses not to follow one of the four rules, s/he gets given a warning.
If the disruptive behaviour continues, the pupil is sent to the RtL room until 4pm. Break and lunch are at adjusted times. The next day, the pupil returns to the RtL room until the same time s/he was sent there the day before, meaning a whole school day is spent there. For example, if a child is sent there at 11am, s/he will leave at 11am the next day.
In the first month, the school hall was used for the RtL room. It was full, some days. Then the numbers started dwindling. They dwindled to the point that the RtL room was moved to a classroom, where it remains. I was there at about 10am on a Friday and there were five students in there. Five. With 720 on roll, that meant that 715 were out in their lessons, learning.
The room is silent. It’s staffed by one person, who was employed for the role. I asked about staffing costs, to get this response: ‘our staff sickness rate has dropped by 58% since we introduced RtL. The cost here has more than paid for itself.’ Students work from curriculum booklets, produced by Heads of Faculty and linked to each year group’s curriculum. If students don’t manage their behaviour in this room, they face an external exclusion. It’s simple and it works.
‘But how… how… what? My kids would just run off and never arrive here!’ (me, to Kathleen)
Essentially, all students are on report. All the time. When a teacher starts a lesson, instead of putting a ‘/’ in the register, s/he puts a ‘2’. This number signifies neutrality. You’re here. You’re on time. You’re showing all the right learning behaviours. When a first warning is issued, the ‘2’ is changed to a ‘3’. If the pupil continues to misbehave, a ‘4’ is entered. This sends an automatic ‘ping’ to the RtL room. The pupil has 5 minutes to arrive. On the flip side, where a student shows learning behaviours above and beyond they get a ‘1’ and this triggers praise and rewards, in a different part of the school sanctions and rewards system.
‘There must be some kids who can’t cope with this sort of system’ (me to Kathleen). Yes. This is where Thrive comes in.
Thrive is a system for those who may not cope with RtL. It may be that a learning or behavioural need means that RtL is not going to work for some students. This is not a lowering of expectations. I explain how and why now.
Before implementing RtL, SLT and the SENDCo established a list of about 24 pupils who may need to use the Thrive room. The Thrive room was staffed by three members of staff, all of whom are trained and experienced in working with SEND, BESD and vulnerable young people.
All students are set the same expectations. The 24 pupils get a ‘2’ in the register on entry, like everybody else. However, if they are given a warning and they feel that they will not manage to stay off a ‘4’, then they can make the choice to exit the lesson and go to the Thrive room. Here, they are supported for 5 to 10 minutes, to process what the warning means and why it was given, at which point they return to lessons with an LSA to settle them if they want it. If a Thrive student goes on to get a ‘4’ they also have to go to the RtL room for a bespoke amount of time, based on what is appropriate for their individual needs. All of this is known and agreed up front with the SENDCo. The students are fully aware of this agreement. As far as the classroom rules are concerned, all students have to follow them. Behind the scenes, children are supported according to their needs. Here’s the thing, though. The Thrive kids are managing in the RtL system. They found, very quickly, that they don’t need three members of staff in the Thrive room. It’s absolutely brilliant – students who struggled with behaviour have risen to the challenge and are truly engaging with it.
What do the pupils think?
I spoke to a total of 6 students on my tour of the school. Some were selected by Kathleen, others I just chatted with on an incidental basis. I spoke to a year 7 child who described himself as ‘a bit chatty’ and ‘popular’. He said that he loved his secondary school. He articulated the 4 rules and said that he’d been sent to the RtL room once: ‘I’m never going there again!’
I met two KS4 boys. Kathleen told me that both had been very challenging in previous years. One was on the brink of a Negotiated Transfer. They were, by far, the best part of the tour. They were surly. They said that the new behaviour system was ‘boring’. One of them told me that he had been excluded from school over 20 times in the previous years. When I asked him how many times he’d been in the RtL room, he told me that he’d been in there three times. I was not impressed, to be honest. Then he added that all of those visits had been in the first fortnight in September. Most crucially, both of the boys told me that they are ‘much happier’ in school now. One said that he gets on better with his mum now, too. I have worked in Bristol schools for 13 years. I know Bristol kids. This was not scripted.
I met two pupils in a year 8 PE theory lesson (which, by the way, is indicative of the extent to the whole-school approach to literacy that is also going on along RtL). Both were shy, sweet and had never been in trouble before. They told me how they used to be angry when teachers couldn’t teach. They said that now, they can actually ‘learn something’. They also told me how the corridors and lesson change-over is calmer. I witnessed this calm change-over shortly after meeting them. It exceeded expectations.
Impact on staff
I’ve left this until the end because it’s what I want to leave with you. I met several members of staff that day. One who really stands out for me was a head of faculty. I asked her if there were any perceivable down-sides to this system, as a teacher. She said this:
“No. None. It’s amazing. The only thing I’ll say is this: we were warned that our planning time would increase by a third, because the kids would just plough through work. I’d agree with that whole-heartedly. They work more, they listen more, you need to plan more. It’s amazing.”
SLT members told me that it has changed their role – they have time to actually do their jobs because they are not constantly picking up behaviour issues. There are still teething problems, loop-holes, inconsistencies. Some staff have found the transition difficult, some feel guilty for setting firm boundaries, but the mantra ‘hold the line’ helps immensely.
There is so much more that I want to write, but I’ve already doubled my own personal blog-word-limit. It’s not true that you need a fresh start with a new school to sort out behaviour. Not true at all.
I am grateful to all of the staff at Orchard who took the time out of their busy day to show me around, especially Kathleen and Dorian (another DH, not mentioned in this blog, who spent the best part of an hour showing me the data, the systems and answering my questions).