Each breaktime, the playground at Hollickwood Primary became a war zone.
Teachers would patrol the grounds of the school in Barnet, north London, splitting up fights and desperately trying to keep the peace, but the pupils were winning. "The playground was not a safe environment," says Fran Currell, who has taught at the school for 18 years. "There was a lot of violence, a lot of very bad language and verbal abuse. A few children dominated the school with their bad behaviour, and the staff were just running round after them putting out fires."
So few were surprised when Ofsted put Hollickwood into special measures in May 2004, identifying no less than 11 key issues that had to be addressed if the school was to survive. One of the most urgent areas was behaviour.
Chris Ryan joined the school as its head in September 2004, determined to stamp out the fighting, verbal abuse and tangible lack of respect among pupils. "It was clear the school was in a very sad situation," he says. "We were seeing kids punching each other if they hadn't scored in football, or cussing each other's families. But I saw that the school had heart and was worth fighting for."
That same year, Hollickwood became one of the first schools to pilot a government initiative called Excellence and Enjoyment: Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), a guidance and resource pack designed to help pupils "reduce emotional barriers to learning" through class activities and discussions.
Each term at the school, a different SEAL theme - ranging from "new beginnings" to "getting on with falling out" and "good to be me" - is explored in assemblies, PSHE lessons and special "circle times", during which relevant techniques are explored, including anger management "calming tricks".
The tricks can involve anything from counting to 10 to looking at the clouds, but using them has seen rates of violence drop by 66 per cent over the course of a year.
Since introducing SEAL, the school's attendance rates have gone from being below the national average to more than 95 per cent. Key stage 2 results have also rocketed up. In 2003, just 28 per cent achieved level 4 or above in maths, compared to 68 per cent this year. In November 2005, Hollickwood emerged from special measures, with Ofsted describing it as a good school with an "outstanding" pastoral programme.
For Ms Currell, the transformation of the school has been dramatic. "It seems to have happened overnight," she says. "SEAL has helped all of us stop concentrating so much on the significant minority of troublemakers, and instead focus on those who are behaving."
The behaviour code is now adhered to by all staff - including teaching assistants and dinner ladies - and encourages a consistent approach that clarifies why the behaviour is unacceptable and how it can be avoided in the future. As such, few parents complain that their child is being "picked on".
The success of Hollickwood's SEAL programme is now mirrored across the country. Since Singlegate Primary in Merton, south London introduced SEAL in September 2005, pupil attendance has risen by almost 10 per cent and staff absences have virtually disappeared. "It is a reflection of how the school has changed its perspective through SEAL," says Nathalie Bull, headteacher.
The Singlegate project has also seen a marked improvement in pupil behaviour and the whole community's self-esteem. "The children want to be here now," Ms Bull adds. "They are much more confident, take responsibility for their actions and can articulate and solve their personal problems. It makes for much better learners."
Allan Fuller, principal educational psychologist at Barnet Council, is convinced that SEAL techniques can help pupils at both primary and secondary schools, as long as it is part of a wider package. "There has to be strong leadership and teaching already in place, otherwise you can't deliver SEAL effectively. But if you mix it in with the basics, it can be a positive catalyst for change."
More than 10,000 English primary schools have asked the Department for Education and Skills for resources about SEAL over the past 15 months.
Last year, a secondary pilot was conducted across six counties, with secondary SEAL material due to be rolled out in April 2007.
For more information
www.standards.dfes.gov.ukprimarypublicationsbandaseal "Active Assemblies for Every Week: For SEAL" by Jenny Mosley Ross Grogan