A collective intake of breath and then a hushed, sad gasp is all that can be heard in the packed lower school assembly. Pupils are mesmerised by the story of a wasted life; of a boy dying of a broken neck, pushed down the stairs after trying to intervene in a drunken brawl between his father and elder brother. Sir Robert Dowling, headteacher of George Dixon international school in Birmingham, is relating tales of alcohol abuse, beginning his assembly by staggering around the stage until giggling pupils realise he is feigning inebriation.
But his comic act soon turns serious. What, he asks, is the most widespread, addictive drug of all? Pupils immediately respond: weed, heroin, crack. Only after he rejects these does a child suggest alcohol.
And how many pupils have drunk alcohol? Three-quarters of these under-14s put up their hands. And what does alcohol do? You go with people you don't know. You get depressed. You bully others. You lose control. The response is plentiful. The family of the boy who died, Sir Robert tells his captivated audience, didn't want him dead. His death was a consequence of people losing control. With Christmas coming, he asks pupils to ask themselves: do they really need alcohol? Do they want to risk losing control?
Of course, he knows that's not the end of the matter. This is a tough school in a tough area. George Dixon draws from Ladywood, the fourth most deprived ward in the country according to a study by the Child Poverty Action Group published in 2002.
Early that morning Sir Robert (pictured) had been out to a local park with some of his pupils to rescue one of their peers who'd spent the night there, thrown out of home by a mother with a booze problem. The boy himself, obviously troubled, had been disruptive and aggressive in school, but had a potentially glittering future. The head was not about to give up on the lad. "He's comfortably capable of 10 A*s at GCSE. We'll find him somewhere to stay while we sort this out. Our job as a school is to pick up the whole package."
Robert Dowling, who was knighted two years ago for services to education, founded the Selly Oak special school about 15 years ago; it became a leading centre in Europe for teaching children with dyslexia. In 1996, he was charged by Tim Brighouse, then Birmingham's chief education officer, with rescuing failed schools.
He was sent into George Dixon five years ago with a brief to close it. But he fell in love with the place. Although it was haemorrhaging pupils and staff - it was down to 400 pupils with only 29 registered to enter the following year - he saw an important role for the school in this deprived multi-ethnic area. Now he has 1,100 pupils, only a handful of them white, a third of them refugees. The number of GCSE pupils gaining five A-Cs has soared from 16 to 45 per cent in two years and the international baccalaureate is on offer in the sixth form.
When he took over, drink was one of the issues he had to tackle - quickly.
More than a quarter of his pupils were drinking regularly, and in school.
"It was part of the culture. They were going out at lunchtime, getting pissed and bringing more drink back into school. But I didn't think the answer was to kick them out. I called parents in, got people in from Alcoholics Anonymous, held assemblies on drink. Assemblies are one of my most powerful tools for reinforcing discipline, and a lot of it is done through stories. Being Irish, I'm a good storyteller and I always tell stories that are true and which I know are germane to kids' lives."
Establishing strong penalties was also part of the strategy. "We have a few simple rules posted up in every class, but these have come from the kids.
We asked them to draw up sanctions on drink, and they were far more draconian than anything we as staff would ever devise. Their attitude was that nobody should bring illegal substances into school and if they did, they should be kicked out. Simple as that."
Sir Robert's approach was two-pronged: single out the worst offenders, meting out a few suspensions; and establish a culture of personal responsibility through constantly talking to pupils, picking up on every minor misdemeanour. "There is no point in saying to pupils, 'You should not drink'. The notion has to be moderation in all things, and it has to be about taking responsibility. I know my sixth-formers and fifth-formers imbibe out of school, but they have not brought drink into school for the past four or five years."
Neither have students been turning up with hangovers on Monday morning.
They don't do this any more, says Sir Robert, because they see the school as their community and they don't want to mess it up.
Last year, Ofsted reported on a school "full of smiles", where pupils demonstrate "exceptional sensitivity to each other's needs" and enjoy a "relaxed friendship" with teachers. The headteacher, inspectors say, is inspirational, a man with "sky-high expectations" of pupils and staff with a "remarkable capacity for enthusing everyone".
Sir Robert achieves this with large dollops of humour and "informed" compassion. Occasionally abrasive, he prides himself on being awkward. He believes "education is the greatest release system there is from the bonds of oppression". Such children, he says, don't need our tears; they need things to be done.
More than 40 nationalities are represented at George Dixon; 65 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals (three times the national average); one-third of sixth-formers are "fending for themselves" or living alone. The school provides breakfast and sends home food parcels for those who are hungry; it provides uniforms for those who cannot afford them; it gives work to sixth-formers who have to make a living, employing them as tutors for younger children and as lunchtime supervisors. It retains girls who are pregnant; it has a close relationship with the Home Office on immigration matters and with the local police on drugs; it has a full-time social worker.
About 60 per cent of the staff are from ethnic minorities, more than 16 recruited from Jamaica. "It shows respect for a child if you give them a teacher from their own culture," says Sir Robert. "It also shows that success is not just a white phenomenon; that what these teachers have achieved, they too can achieve."
There is no aspect of a child's life, he says, that is not the business of the school. He tells his staff they should never walk past a pupil without making eye contact and saying hello, pausing for a chat whenever possible, and that they should never shout. He greets pupils and parents at the gate every morning and says goodbye at the gate every night. He visits every class in the school twice a day, nearly every day, including those classes held on a Saturday morning, both as a support to his staff and as an encouragement to pupils. All teaching staff are on a rota for "walking the school". If staff engage to this extent, he says, teachers are much less likely to suffer indiscipline in the classroom.
He does not ask his staff to do anything he would not do himself. "The head can be the weakest link in any school. I am responsible for standards of behaviour. I have to make sure that my school is fit for my teachers to teach to the best of their ability."
Total engagement of staff and pupils, he believes, is the key. "This school is the most wonderful place to be. I love it absolutely because we own each other. There is practically nothing pupils will not talk to us about, and we as teachers need to draw on that knowledge and that wisdom. Schools often overlook this.
"If I have to take strong sanctions I tell pupils I am doing so because they have got me into a corner, they have given me no alternative. If they understand that you genuinely do not want to take draconian action, they are much less likely to push you to it.
"It's an internal change in a pupil that a teacher should be looking for.
Any fool can suspend pupils and come down heavy, and sometimes you have to because the school needs breathing space. But you don't take the cross from the shoulders of a child who is struggling by nailing their feet to the ground."