The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Positive Portobello

Changing the behaviour of the adults in a school can have a positive impact on the children

Reading a single book changed Ruth McKay’s entire approach to running her school. The headteacher of Portobello High School in Edinburgh read Paul Dix’s When the Adults Change, Everything Changes: Seismic shifts in school behaviour not long after its publication in 2017. Less than a year and a half on, and the school is reporting a positive shift in the behaviour of both pupils and teachers.

Learning experience

Find out more about Portobello High School's approach and hear from Paul Dix and a host of others at the Portobello Learning Festival on Saturday 8 June. Details and tickets are available at:

Ruth says: “As a professional, you are reading and learning through research all the time but I haven’t come across something with such a demonstrable impact in my entire career.”

The book suggests that it is more effective to change the behaviour of the adults in a school than it is to try to change the behaviour of the children. Its author Paul Dix founded behaviour-training specialists Pivotal Education in 2001 to help shape teachers’ behaviour “to reach a level of consistency that most will never have experienced. We create a platform for change based around the one behaviour we can control absolutely – our own”. Following Ruth’s new insights into teaching practice, she shared the Pivotal approach among the school’s senior leadership team and found a “real enthusiasm” for its implementation. She was, however, cautious about laying the groundwork, ensuring that staff, parents and pupils were supportive before launching Pivotal Behaviour Management practices across the school in August 2018.

With 1,400 pupils, the school is a large organisation. It has also moved to a new – and very different – building. Ruth says: “The school has undergone a lot of change, recently moving from an eight-storey tower block which it had been in since 1964. It was spectacularly unsuitable for modern education. There were no social spaces and little outside space. That said; it was what our young people were used to. Here, we have a modern, spacious building. Everyone was excited about the move but just as adults need to adapt to change, so do young people.”

Ruth explains that Luke McAllister, Senior Development Officer, who has been leading the Pivotal implementation, worked with pupils to reframe the school’s vision and values to fit more closely with the new premises and ethos. “We wanted to use this time to set out what we are about and the young people came up with our new ‘Achieving Together’ vision.” The school’s values of confidence, opportunity, respect, community and learning are now proudly highlighted on the wall in the hall under the Achieving Together statement, and all of the Pivotal Education practices embedded in the school support this vision.

Luke says: “One of the reasons our young people have embraced this work is that there is a feeling that everyone is working together positively.”

A school in-service day allowed the school’s Pivotal-trained instructor team to work closely with teachers across the school to introduce scenarios and explain the Pivotal approach. Each of the 100 teachers at Portobello were also given a copy of the book to read.

“Consistency” is a word that crops up regularly throughout the training and also in speaking with the teachers at Portobello High School. Portobello has adapted Pivotal’s Pillars of Practice into three ‘Visible Adult Consistencies’: Calm, consistent and kind; Meet and greet; and Praise in public and Reprimand in private.

Maths teacher Mary Hand says that it is this consistency that has been the key impact of the Pivotal approach on the school. “There is more consistency in the way teachers are speaking to pupils. Before, pupils might have been receiving a very different experience across the school, as the school rules were unclear and, in some cases, unknown. With the new approach, we have three rules for pupils: to be ready, respectful and safe, and we are speaking to them about these consistently throughout the day.

“A couple of boys were pushing each other the other day so I said to them ‘what rule are we not following’. They quickly responded ‘we aren’t being safe’. It is definitely encouraging positive thought and the pupils have really bought into it.”

Mary and her colleague, Modern Languages teacher Eve Howie, explain that they have become much more considered in the way that they talk to pupils as a result of the new approaches. Mary says: “I do think there has been a more positive feeling around the staff. We are really thinking about how we speak to them and it is stopping a lot of secondary behaviours. For example, I might ask a pupil to take their hoodie off in class and then go back to them and say ‘thanks for doing as I asked’. The Pivotal training has made me think about the way I do things.

“The ‘reprimand in private’ aspect is the thing I have had to think about the most. In a challenging class, you have to think about not instinctively shouting ‘stop doing that’ across the classroom and go and speak with them. Sometimes that means I am being honest with them and saying ‘ok, what I should have done there is come to speak to you about what is wrong’."

Eve has welcomed the changes: “I always hated telling pupils off; sounding angry to get the point across. Now I feel that I don’t have to do that. Giving praise to the pupils who deserve it is really positive.”

Portobello has now started recognising pupils’ “over and above behaviours”, which are defined as achievement, resilience and contribution. In tandem with the Pivotal Education practices, the school was the first in Scotland to start using the Class Charts behaviour management software.

The Class Charts app allows teachers to promote the “over and above behaviours” of pupils among the school community and to the young people’s parents. Using red and green colour-coded diagrams, the app clearly indicates if a child has been working well or has behavioural challenges that need to be addressed.

Luke says over 25,000 green “positive praises” have been provided to the pupils since August, in addition to weekly praise post cards and Friday Praise calls. Staff are invited to make a call home to anyone they feel has really stood out as working “over and above” throughout the week. “To finish the working week in this way has been a well-received initiative, enjoyed by parents, pupils and staff.”

Mary says: “Class charts really help pupils stay focused. Also, some children are well behaved and work hard all the time. If that’s the case, they may not feel that they get any recognition for it. That means that a ‘green’ for contribution might be a big deal for them and helps encourage them to continue striving. Continued reds will be flagged up much more quickly than waiting until parents’ night to discuss issues.”

Eve adds: “It has been really helpful in giving us a holistic view of what is happening across the school. We can see who is regularly getting reds or greens and if there is a problem, we can pick this up earlier and discuss the problem or get a guidance teacher involved. On the other side, if the children are getting on really well, we can tell their parents.”

Luke insists that Portobello is not using Class Charts as a zero tolerance, punitive tool. “It is more that the school is offering greater transparency at a touch of a button. We have used it in a very positive way to support our approach as a communications tool.”

A big change for the pupils has been the new “meet and greet” policy, encouraging teachers to welcome all pupils into their classroom with a handshake and a hello. Third year pupil Fraser claims that, despite some time getting used to it, the practice has helped instil “a more positive feeling in the classroom”.

Mary says this has also helped teachers to spot any issues with pupils which might need to be addressed, and provides a “clean slate” at the start of every lesson. Eve agrees, adding: “Shy pupils may not willingly put up their hands in a lesson, so it does become important that you can acknowledge them in other, more relaxed ways, which help them to engage.”

As part of its new ethos, the school has ditched “unwieldy and unmanageable” detention in favour of “time back” discussions. Ruth explains: “The Pivotal approach is an opportunity for the teacher and the learner to get the relationship back on track through discussion. It is a situation that is owned by the class teacher. If a young person is simply passed up the chain of command, it indicates to them that the teacher can’t deal with the situation, and that is disempowering.”

Ruth is keen to embed more positive Pivotal practices into Portobello High. “Looking at the scope of the Pivotal work, we are doing well in the early stages. But Pivotal’s approach offers lots more in terms of developing school culture and Portobello will be embracing this.”