There's a little bit of devolution going on in Dagenham. At Godwin primary, an unassuming school on the far eastern fringes of London, the pupils are taking over the playground. The ringleaders are easy to spot. They wear an eye-catching addition to their school uniform - a red cap with the initials GPS in big black letters. The colour scheme may be the same as that used by Dennis the Menace and anarchists down the ages, but the members of Godwin Playground Squad are here to uphold the rules not overthrow them. They are the friendly face of a highly successful pupil-centred scheme to improve discipline and help one another.
The Godwin Playground Squad has been running things at playtime and lunchtime since shortly after the infant and junior schools on the site merged six years ago. The resultant school sits in the middle of an irregular five-sided plot, surrounded by houses, and has a playground that was little more than a strip of tarmac running around the perimeter. "It is a funny sort of shape," admits headteacher Sandra Griggs. With no main area and lots of corners, it was difficult for teachers to supervise and even even more difficult for pupils to play happily. So Ms Griggs decided to "change the playground completely".
She says: "It was important for the children to become involved in the running of the playground. So we had a kind of competition. Everybody talked about it and agreed on what the rules should be."
The children came up with five "golden rules" - be gentle, be kind, play games that everyone can share, respect the grown-ups on duty and, last but not least, if you've got a problem, try to sort it out with a member of the Godwin Playground Squad.
The GPS are a select bunch. Would-be members have to fill in an application form, before being interviewed by a panel of staff and pupils and undergoing training. Candidates need to show they are helpful, sensitive, honest and good at listening and that they won't mind giving up some of their playtimes. But it's not just a club for goodie-goodies - unlikely candidates who "may rise to the responsibility" are also considered.
An important part of the job is knowing how to teach games. Godwin's playground is divided into quiet areas and play areas, evident from the myriad of coloured lines marking out playground games pitches. GPS members are responsible for organising Craze of the Week, a rotating system of games and activities ranging from French skipping to stilt-walking, juggling and Connect Four.
But Godwin's great innovation is the friendship stop. Children who want someone to talk to or play with go to sit on one of the two friendship stops - a simple bench beneath a cheerful mural on the playground wall - and a member of the squad will come to the rescue. The mural, painted by the pupils, depicts a line of people standing at a bus stop. The difference is you don't have to wait so long for a member of the GPS to come along - though it's just as likely that three will arrive at once.
Through role-play and counselling, GPS volunteers get a crash course in conflict resolution for kids. They learn how to spot the signs of trouble through body language, and children are encouraged to sort out minor disagreements. More serious problems, increasingly rare these days, are referred to an adult.
Katie and Terri are among the 40 Year 5 and 6 pupils who make up the GPS. Terri explains their job: "There might be another person walking around on their own, and if they go to the friendship stop you can go and play with them." But, she adds, with a serious expression, "you've got to put the commitment in".
Commitment means regular meetings to discuss problems and successes encountered. Children being lippy, telling you to go away, or trying to nick your cap, are the downside, but job satisfaction is in pairing up children and seeing them play together or being able to help someone who's upset.
The ideas behind the GPS are carried on indoors too, because, as Sandra Griggs says: "It's no good setting it up in isolation. It won't work unless it's part of a whole school ethos." Inspired by Jenny Mosley, who pioneered the concept of circle time, the school introduced "golden time". Children who work well, behave well or try hard can accumulate credits towards a Friday afternoon treat such as music, needlecraft, cooking, line dancing, board games or circus skills.
"It's amazing how much the children have taken to it," says Scott Salmond, class teacher and GPS administrator. "It's not just the 'good' kids who you would expect to be involved. It has been the making of some children. It's rare that they come to me and say, 'this is a situation I can't sort out.'
You can see them sorting things out like little adults."
Godwin's last Ofsted report described the playground squad operation as "excellent". It noted that while behaviour was "usually good" in the classroom, it was "very good" in the playground, adding that "it contributes considerably to the children's social development".
Sandra Griggs agrees that the benefits will go far beyond the playground fence. "It's about preparing them for future life, giving them experience of living in a community and taking responsibility for their own behaviour." Godwin may not be blessed with the lush, green surroundings of other schools, but the GPS has made it a much nicer place to be.
Ideas from Godwin primary and 20 other schools around Britain featured in the prizewinning Growing Schools garden (see 'Friday' magazine, June 28) at the Hampton Court Flower Show earlier this month. This is being recreated at the Environmental Curriculum Centre, Eltham, in the London borough of Greenwich. The centre is a nine-acre wildlife site with a rich range of habitats. The charity Learning through Landscapes has its London office at the centre and the garden will be open to schools by appointment. Further information: www.brockhill.kent.sch.uk; www.ltl.org.uk