When I first came here," says Brenda Cotton, headteacher of Little Parndon County Junior School in Harlow, Essex, "we nearly had a riot in the playground with our then Year 6. They were very difficult, very challenging. I thought, in all my years of teaching, I haven't come across this before. I don't intend for it to happen again."
With "an excellent team" of staff, Mrs Cotton drew up a behaviour policy. At its core was the constant expectation of good behaviour and respect. Respect for the children in her charge, many of whom have difficult lives, is the bedrock on which Mrs Cotton and her staff operate. "How else can the children learn to respect each other?" she asks.
In the nexus of that policy, a programme of spiritual and moral education, a way to translate underlying attitudes into classroom activity, was needed. In 1993, Mrs Cotton invited the Human Values Foundation to pitch their programme to her school. It was "exactly what we needed".
Out of the 260 seven to 11-year-olds at Little Parndon junior school, 70 are on the special needs register. Special needs range from specific learning disability to hyperactivity to "extremely disruptive". These children in particular benefit from Education in Human Values (EHV). Loosely based on core values of the great religions, with a leaning perhaps to the Eastern goals of harmony and detachment, the programme has five branches: love, peace, truth, right conduct and non-violence.
Where a turbulent community of children is suffering from "new town syndrome", says Mrs Cotton, materialistic goods are valued over emotional ones and quarrels in the community can spill over into school life, the programme's stress on tranquillity offers a haven of reflection from the hurly-burly outside the school gates.
The basic approach of EHV as outlined in its teachers' manual exemplifies its core values. Each lesson opens with a quotation or meditation from sources as diverse as Shakespeare or other children in the group: a snippet of "truth". It goes on to open up with some group singing, learning a new song or sharing old favourites (rousing, as anyone who enjoys choral singing would agree, feelings of "love").
The group are then ready for silent sitting, a kind of relaxation-cum meditation in which the children are helped, by music and description, to imagine a quiet scene with feelings of "peace". Then the teacher brings them back to the present, to share their thoughts and feelings.
A group activity such as making a friendship flower to chart all the qualities which make for good friends or making up a game, like the parachute games, which depend on the co-operation of all the players to work, follows. This is "right conduct" in action.
Finally, a story is told , always one with no neat solution, which stirs the imagination to think of "non-violence". It may be a folk tale, a myth, a play. But its moral content is elicited by questioning and discussion and no contribution is ever said to be wrong, though the teacher need not agree with it.
Does this all sound a bit pious? But the beauty of the EHV programme is that all the lesson plans, devised by June Auton, are bang-on practical. From playing Cat and Mouse under the brightly striped silk parachute (develops harmony) to sharing ideas on how to stop bullying in Circle-Time (finding non-violent solutions), from making a thank-you card for someone who has benefited us (reciprocity) to visualising beautiful flowers in a meadow at the end of the day (developing inner peace) the children at Little Parndon revel in the EHV programme.
By such exercises as helping to devise classroom rules, they gain the confidence to feel that bad behaviour and bullying can be defeated by discussion. Georgina, aged 10, says: "The teachers are always kind to you and you can tell them things."
EHV is time-tabled twice a week for each class in the school. But, more than that, the values promoted in the EHV lessons chime in perfectly with the rules of behaviour without being, as Mrs Cotton says, "too gentle Jesus. That would never work here".
Joan Cook, a teaching assistant, says: "We do the same things in class and in the playground. If someone says they were hit, for instance, we ask the other child what happened. It might turn out they were hit because someone said something bad to them.
"Then we ask them how they would feel if it happened to them, explain to the first one that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, to the second that you shouldn't hit because you'll just get into trouble yourself and it's not worth it.
"If they are still upset with each other, we may sit them down for a while or send them elsewhere for time out. If they are distressed, we have the quiet room where they can sit and reflect before they come back and rejoin the group."
There are sanctions. In extreme cases, a child may be prevented from playing in the playground at lunchtime. Rarely, a child who is violent may be excluded. On the positive side, a system of "special mentions", Merit Assemblies and treats like outings and extra playtimes rewards good behaviour and achievement, including the kind of consistent quiet obedience which can too often go unremarked.
Joan Cook says: "It really works, and quite quickly. I used to work with one little boy, a traveller who used to fight all the time. He was in the playground and there was a fight. I was away but one of the teachers told me how she heard him say to the others, in just the same tone of voice I use, 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Just walk away, because if you get into trouble it won't be worth it.'" The basic EHV programme is adjusted at Little Parndon. Instead of running a whole session, parts are used throughout a school day. Games like the parachute games are woven into PE. Activities like devising an assembly for friends and family on Remembrance Day embody thoughts on non-violence.
A circle-time when everyone takes a turn to say what they like about themselves or each other develops themes of self and others in personal and social education. Discussing stories from the point of view of "How would you feel?" makes the children think them alive, find something of their lives in them.
Some of the teachers use silent sitting to start the day, some to bring it to an end. But all of them use all of the programme, as Rebecca Haughey, deputy head, says: "It really does work. The circle-time and the silent sitting allow the children to tell us what's bothering them. It gives them confidence. They know we listen."
Mrs Cotton says: "If we don't produce that calm, controlled atmosphere with mutual respect then no education can happen."
"That door," she adds, nodding to the study door, "is never shut. I see children, I ring parents all the time. Just now in the circle-time, one child disclosed that he had been bullied and I rang the mother to tell her. She's just rang back to say he has told her too, something that has been on his mind for several weeks."
For details: Human Values Foundation, Lower Wallbridge Farmhouse, Dowlish Wake, Ilminster, Somerset TA19 0NZ. Tel 01460 52499. Membership Pounds 10 a year, manuals Pounds 49 a set, training fees Pounds 40 a session. Tel: 01276 64584
Human Values Foundation has a stand at the Birmingham Education Show (B11), March 6-8 1997