July 2012


  • You're hired
    The government is putting money into apprenticeships, hoping they will appeal to more school leavers and foster a highly skilled workforce to help boost economic recovery. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at why apprenticeships have had an uneven reputation in the past and what schools and colleges can do to improve take-up now. More
  • A roaring success?
    We hear much about how UK school standards are being eclipsed by the educational achievements of South-East Asia in particular but how accurate are the claims? Isabel Nisbet examines what, if anything, the UK can really learn from Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea. More
  • Bright futures
    St Birinus School aims to develop its own leaders by elevating its most promising staff to roles shadowing the senior team. Jim Fuller explains. More
  • A load of hot air?
    Media headlines seem to back the government’s view that GCSE and A level have become easier and therefore are in desperate need of reform. However, evidence from one school indicates that the most significant factor in increased attainment at A level is not grade inflation but students delaying specialisation to three A levels until after the completion of AS. More
  • Taylored solutions
    Bad behaviour and poor attendance at school are as crucial as poverty in determining whether a child achieves academically, which is why the government’s behaviour expert, Charlie Taylor, is determined that both must be tackled. He talks to Lucie Carrington. More
  • What the papers say
    Education media coverage can make depressing reading, but ASCL members do have the power to generate a positive press profile. Nick Bannister reports. More
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Taylored solutions

Bad behaviour and poor attendance at school are as crucial as poverty in determining whether a child achieves academically, which is why the government’s behaviour expert, Charlie Taylor, is determined that both must be tackled. He talks to Lucie Carrington.

Charlie Taylor, headteacher at the Willows School, a west London primary school for children with severe behavioural difficulties, no longer has to wear machine-washable suits. When he first took over as head, he was spat at so frequently that easy-clean workwear was his only option. Within a few years, behaviour had improved to the degree that he could afford to opt for something more elegant.

Improvements at the Willows also brought him to the notice of education secretary Michael Gove and since April 2011, he has been on secondment to the Department for Education (DfE) as the government’s behaviour adviser.

With ten years’ experience of working with children with behavioural problems, he has strong – sometimes controversial – views on improving standards among some of the lowest achieving pupils. He has used two key reports on behaviour and attendance to set out his ideas, be it docking truancy fines from child benefit payments or encouraging student teachers to train in pupil referral units (PRUs).

He was, perhaps, destined for a job in teaching, although his own education – he went to Eton – is hardly typical of the state sector. “Many of my family have been teachers so it was always a possibility for me,” he says.

“I spent time working in a school thinking about it and then did a BEd at Homerton College, Cambridge. It’s very much a vocation and has become a stronger one over time. The more time I spend in education the more I realise it is the right thing for me.”

He helped local authorities develop their alternate provision before taking up his first headship at the Willows. “I spent a lot of time doing the theory and decided I wanted to do it in practice,” he says. He believes his real success at the school was in raising pupils’ achievement.

“We are used to lowering our expectation of these children. It is tempting to provide education that is high in warmth but low in academic challenge. But lack of academic achievement is a big block to succeeding socially, too.”

He highlighted the issue in his review of alternative provision (AP), published in March, which pointed out that only 1.4 per cent of pupils in alternative provision achieve five GCSEs grade A*-C including English and maths, compared with the national average of around 50 per cent. His conclusion was that many PRUs were failing excluded children.

“Obviously we recognise that where a pupil’s education has been disrupted significantly, for example, if they arrive in AP in year 11, it may not be realistic to hope for five GCSEs A*-C. But where that occurs AP should encourage the academic progress and engagement that will enable that young person to secure meaningful qualifications at a later date.

“We want AP to be used on a timely basis and as part of a package of early intervention to enable pupils to catch up with their peers and achieve comparable outcomes.”

Revolving door

Ideally, he says, AP should be a revolving door – a means of getting pupils back into mainstream schooling as soon as possible.

But mainstream schools should also be building their own capacity to deal with behaviour issues, he believes. The best schools already do an amazing job with pupils who are struggling to behave. “It’s a badge of honour for most teachers when they succeed with a child with special needs of any sort. It’s a tremendous source of pride to them.”

Teaching assistants play a key role here, he says, through the links they form with AP and referral units. “It helps to build up capacity within the school and enables teachers and TAs to develop a tool kit for managing difficult behaviour.”

A key recommendation in the AP report was to remove PRUs and their funding from local authority control and enable schools to buy their own provision – possibly working with other schools in the area. He also called on alternative providers to take advantage of the freedoms offered by other government reforms with new PRUs opening as free schools and existing units becoming academies. He believes the demand is out there.

“Many of the heads I’ve come across in special education are champing at the bit to offer a wider service outside the constraints of the local authority. The free school system gives schools the freedom to innovate and do what they want.”

Free schools are also an opportunity for mainstream schools to collaborate and work together, he says. “Some of the free school applications that have come in are from schools wanting to start up their own AP to help raise achievement among a group of kids they are struggling with.”

“Schools can come to us with an idea about how they want to organise AP and we [in government] will do everything we can to make it work. This is what is exciting. It’s about people who really understand their locality coming together and working on an opportunity for children in their area.”

Ultimately, however, it is the quality of teaching that makes a difference in the classroom. This is one reason why he has called on the government to enable PRUs to become training schools and for trainee teachers to complete some of their training in a PRU.

ASCL has expressed its concern about what this might do both to young, inexperienced teachers and to their troubled pupils, but he is adamant: “New teachers feel most anxious about whether or not they will be able to control the class. By improving their training, we will help them feel more confident about being able to manage behaviour.”

The freedom to commission and innovate – welcome though it may be – also means uncertain funding for PRUs, especially if schools keep the money to spend on building up their own capacity for managing behaviour.

The government has made some effort to deal with this. Under ‘place-plus’ funding arrangements announced in March, PRUs, AP academies and AP free schools will receive £8,000 per place for an agreed number of planned places, while top-up funding will come through schools placing pupils in that AP setting. The pupil premium could be another source of cash, he says.

X factor

He is wary of putting too much emphasis on the link between poverty and behaviour insisting that is often “an X factor”, such as bereavement, domestic violence or drug and alcohol abuse in the family that tips the child over. However, he acknowledges that “a higher proportion of children with behavioural difficulties come from poorer families”.

It might be surprising, therefore, that his report on attendance proposes penalising some of these families further by docking their child benefit if a child truants or misses too much schooling.

But poor attendance must be dealt with, he insists, because just as clear as the link between poverty and behaviour is the link between attendance, behaviour and ultimately achievement. And for many it starts young.

“It begins with patchy attendance in primary schools when children get a bit behind their peers. Then they play truant a bit and it gets worse and by the time they are 14 or 15 they have been designated bad boys,” he says.

“Currently we have a system that is neither swift nor certain,” he adds. “There are so many regulations that parents realise it is a system that can be played. Headteachers need to be able to say to parents: ‘This is a simple, clear system and when we say we are going to do something, we will.’”

  • Lucie Carrington is a freelance educational writer.

Charlie Taylor’s report on improving attendance and review of alternative provision can be found on the DfE website at www.education.gov.uk

Charlie Taylor