When Julie Taylor took up her post as headteacher, she noticed something strange about the children at her new secondary school. In her frequent walks around the grounds, it dawned on her that none of them looked her in the eye. Instead, they glanced down or turned away whenever she passed. "They didn't know how to conduct themselves," she says.
Eighteen months on, it's another story. Now not only are they happy to make eye contact, but many go out of their way to say hello. This morning, for example, one pupil came up and asked her how she was and how her day was going.
The difference, according to Mrs Taylor, is largely down to the school's adoption of a new code of manners. Pupils are now expected to answer teachers with "Yes, Miss" or "Yes, Mrs Taylor", to open doors for staff and other pupils, and to stand behind their desks at the start of lessons until the teacher says they may sit.
The change seems to be paying dividends. Attendance has risen from 88.5 per cent to 93 per cent, fixed-term exclusions are down 10 per cent, with no permanent exclusions, and staff report filling in fewer incident forms.
For Mrs Taylor, the emphasis on manners and respect derived from her aim to raise standards and aspirations among pupils at Neville Lovett Community School in Fareham, Hampshire. "Having good manners and being able to interact socially makes young people feel good about themselves," she says. "The biggest thing we can do for our pupils is give them self- belief."
Neville Lovett may report spectacular success for its approach, but it's not the only school singling out manners as an area for improvement. Efforts to improve manners and promote respect have been gathering momentum in recent years, and 18 months ago Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, cited the development of good manners as one of the prospective benefits for extending the social and emotional aspects of learning programme into secondary schools.
The Harris Federation of South London Schools, which runs eight academies, has also put great store on improving manners, including table manners, among its pupils.
Nor is the trend confined to the state sector. The independent Brighton College announced last year that it was introducing a compulsory course for Year 9 pupils including good manners and etiquette, with the importance of giving up seats on public transport taught alongside practical skills such as ironing, sewing and using cash machines.
Manners seem to have become a preoccupation of those who see their decline as the thin end of the antisocial behaviour wedge. More than half of those surveyed for a television programme last year said poor manners was the biggest problem facing society, with three-quarters believing manners should be taught in school.
This is not just a British concern. Pupils in Bremen, Germany, were given compulsory lessons in manners after the state education minister demanded an end to rudeness. Children were taught the art of greeting and the importance of not interrupting, among other lessons in good behaviour.
High on the agenda at Neville Lovett was getting a quicker start to lessons. When Mrs Taylor arrived, one of the issues raised by teachers was the time it took for pupils to settle down. The usual starter activities did not seem to be working. So Mrs Taylor instituted a policy that pupils should stand behind their desks, with their books and equipment ready, until given permission to sit. This gave teachers the chance to welcome pupils to their lessons and for the pupils to greet their teacher.
Alongside this, Mrs Taylor highlighted the importance of good manners, making clear it was not just a one-way street. "I wouldn't dream of walking into my admin office and just barking orders," she says. "It is about according the same courtesy to the children.
"I go out and talk to the children a lot. I say please and thank you and I hold doors open for them. I model the behaviour we expect from them.
"I talked to the children about good manners, where they come from and how they feel when people don't show good manners. I talked about how the community has an idea of young people as hoodie-wearing thugs and how we wanted to change that."
The school introduced behaviour booklets to reinforce this approach. Pupils have to follow five golden rules in every lesson: behave; be on time; have the right equipment; follow instructions; and work to targets. Children who stick to all five get a stamp at the end of each lesson; transgressors get a number to denote which rule they flouted, tied to a system of rewards and sanctions.
"You see people opening doors for teachers. I think the children are well behaved now," says Felicity, 15. Emma, 14, adds: "When you answer the register you have to say `Yes, Sir' or `Yes, Miss' and the teachers say `Good morning' back to you. There's more respect between you and the teacher."
Andrew Waddington, the head of technology, says teachers are seeing the benefits of this approach. "It is building a culture of politeness and it is making the pupils more responsible," he says. "They are getting the idea that we're here to work with them, not against them."
The rule that pupils stand ready behind their desks is not just about manners; it means lessons can get going quicker, says Sarah Crowe, a geography teacher. "You can start as soon as you come in and there's no time wasted," she says. "It's much more positive; it means you're not focusing on the negative any more. I've really noticed the difference."
Kairen Cullen, an educational psychologist, says putting manners on the agenda can be a good basis for discussions about behaviour and for helping shift people's perceptions. But she warns that simply mandating new forms of behaviour will not in itself lead to lasting change: pupils need to see it put into practice.
"The biggest influence on children's behaviour is the models adults provide," she says. One of the most important areas is the relationships between adults in a school, and between those in school and those outside, such as parents. "If the children see good, respectful and mannerly relationships between adults, it is a heck of a powerful signal."
Ms Cullen adds that a new policy can only be part of a solution, and should be accompanied by discussion and awareness about what is important to people in their interactions with each other. "Complex human organisations need this kind of ground-level work and it has to emanate from some shared and agreed principles. The rest will follow from that."
Mrs Taylor recognises that her approach, adapted from a technique she encountered at a Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference, is disarmingly simple. She does not claim it is a miracle cure-all: there will always be a hard-core who don't respond, but she says for most pupils it is proving effective. "It depersonalises poor behaviour and it creates an expectation that everybody will achieve. There is far better engagement with school and a more positive relationship with parents."
Manners are not only about being polite, but also about making people feel more comfortable. Mrs Taylor suggests that it is when pupils feel uncomfortable that they are less likely to behave appropriately. "If you can hold your own in any situation you are more than halfway there," she says.
"Our pupils know how to listen and how to conduct themselves and they don't feel uncomfortable. I'm not saying they're perfect, but the change in atmosphere in the past 18 months has been noticeable."
Promoting manners has been portrayed in the media as a return to Victorian-style rules. Mrs Taylor dismisses this attempt to hark back to the past. Instead, she says it is a recognition that children will benefit from having manners and social skills when they leave school.
While the emphasis on good manners may not run to doffing caps, if it means the young generation can make small talk and eye contact, then Mrs Taylor feels it has served its purpose.
"It is ridiculous to say it is Victorian. Our society works, where it works well, on respect and good manners, and anybody who wants to get on in life at whatever level needs to have those things in place."