Being nice works for us

16th December 2011 at 00:00

"I know this is going to sound ridiculous," I say to the staff at morning briefing. "I know you are going to think I'm a sad old man who's losing his marbles, but I do believe our children are getting more polite." Stunned silence from the Daily Mail corner.

I'm sure it's true. As I tour the corridors and bike sheds, there seem to be more pupils saying hello to me, more standing aside at doorways and fewer obnoxiously pushing around the place. If I were handing out free Justin Bieber posters as I went, I could understand it.

Rich the geographer agrees with me. He puts it down to the change of uniform. We were fed up with ties halfway down chests and shirt-tails covering bottoms. So we went for a stripy shirt, worn as a blouse that does not tuck in for the girls and open-necked for the boys. Critics said they looked like ice-cream vendors; the majority that they were a hundred times smarter.

Rich says the improvement in atmosphere is because we are no longer nagging the children about uniform. We can talk about their stamp collections and pet ferrets instead. In times when the zeitgeist is blazers and boot camps, it seems out of step to dress down and be nice to each other. Sir Michael Wilshaw, soon to be Ofsted's chief inspector, would surely not approve.

Actually, we are after the same outcome. We both want schools to be safe, calm environments where children essentially do as they are told, and learn the self-discipline they need to thrive throughout their lives. In some contexts, it may well be right to achieve this by pulling out a boy's toenails because he forgot to polish his blazer buttons. But down here we think we can achieve more by doing it differently.

I admit we had grown slack over the years by being neither one thing nor the other; neither tough nor soft, but a sort of nagging, whingey in-between. We sort of wanted the kids to look smart, but kind of did not want to punish them for trivial offences. We are not fond of zero-tolerance. We like talking to people, coaching them, getting them to accept responsibility for themselves. Yet Sir Michael is right: if you are going to have rules, you had jolly well better enforce them.

So we solved the problem of tatty ties by getting rid of them. We applied the same rigour to being nice to people. Were we really being positive in the way we praised pupils or did we again have a bunch of half-enforced, wishy-washy systems?

We were drowning in commendations and principal's awards and Mrs Worthy's awards for worthiness in Year 7, but by Year 11 they had all dried up. So now we put all the commendations earned each half-term into a draw, with a Kindle for the winner. You can trade three "Caught you doing something good" stickers for free food. In the sixth-form, five gold forms earn you #163;10.

We took professional photographs of kids smiling. Our walls are now plastered with blown-up prints of people who are clearly happy to be here. Each department has an achievement display, with big photographs and a citation for the six-star pupils in that subject for that half-term. A lot of kids are going to feel really special at some point this year.

What works in east London is not our way in Kingsbridge. We have seen the difference this term of a nicer niceness: however you skin your cat, make sure you skin it well.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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