Rifat Malik reports on a school that believes it has touched base with an American import. From baseball to US penal policy, the concept of "three strikes and you are out" has now come to British schools as part of a series of pioneering measures to crack down on the problems of lateness, truancy and bullying. As a concession to the British psyche, a slight variation allows four chances before pupils face suspension.
Holloway School in north London has just introduced a strikes system and closed-circuit television. This was inspired by transatlantic exchange visits with US schools. There a more rigid and militaristic approach is considered essential to tackle the serious problems of drugs and violence that are rife in many of their schools.
Earlier this year, Paul Smith, headteacher of the 1,000-pupil secondary boys' school received a Fulbright Scholarship from the American Embassy to fund his investigation into initiatives adopted by schools in Washington DC. He believes the modified version of these disciplinary measures has transformed his school.
"Punctuality has improved greatly. One breach of discipline tends to lead to another and if a pupil is late for no good reason, they are not in a right frame of mind and will disrupt lessons. This system ensures pupils go from one lesson to another without problems." says Mr Smith. He has also brought in hall passes, which mean pupils can only leave classrooms if teachers give them their own passes.
The school has installed a tannoy system which it uses to warn pupils that they are going to be late for classes - a system known as "closedown". If they are late three times a "strike" is made against their name.
The first strike earns them a rebuke, the second a letter home and the third summons parents to school, otherwise the pupil is suspended. After the fourth strike suspension is automatic. Parents were informed in advance and have supported the initiative.
Internal televisual monitoring in public areas around the school such as the playground, corridors and the canteen has helped reinforce the closedown system. Mr Smith dismisses its Big Brother connotations and says: "People shouldn't be alarmist about it, it's really to the school's advantage."
He says the answer to the truancy problem is to strictly control pupils movements around the school and points out that such rigid "travel checks" make it easier to detect intruders and expose bullying.
Nuisance problems for local residents caused by rampaging schoolchildren, particularly at lunchtime, along with afternoon truancy are on the decrease. All lunchtime passes have been revoked. Mr Smith says: "We only have two children out of 1,000 who are given special permission to go home at lunch time. One school in Camden admitted it encouraged pupils to leave at lunch, so the problem would be off their hands. We take the opposite view." In Washington it is illegal for pupils to leave the school and security guards enforce this rule.
Although Mr Smith feels the US model is too extreme and generates a siege mentality, he thinks it still has lessons for British schools. For example, in the schools he visited bullying was a rare occurrence. "Continuous monitoring requires commitment and hard work. Other heads will really have to believe in the principle to make it work."