Bringing them up a peg

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Inner-city pupils would benefit greatly from something as simple as a secure place to put their coats and belongings, says John Mair

The simple answers are often the best. I have a master plan to improve behaviour in London's inner-city schools at a stroke. It does not require Royal Commissions, it does not require working parties, just a modicum of money and some hammers and nails. What is it? Give each and every pupil a safe place to hang their coat and a locker to keep their learning materials. Somewhere, simply, to call their own.

It is not rocket science, but it will work. I speak from experience. Some of my down days are spent as a general supply teacher in a variety of inner and outer London schools: the good, the bad, the very indifferent and the truly dreadful. So, too, are their learning environments. But, in very few of them do children, of whatever ability or background, have their own safe space within the school.

They are, not to put too fine a point on it, physical and learning gypsies, constantly on the move. They never take off their "outside" coats between lessons and sometimes not during them.

They traipse from classroom to classroom trailing their coats like latter-day chain mail. School is a temporary, daytime home for them and for their garments. They bring their outdoor wear indoors for all of the day.

So, it's hardly surprising that some find it difficult to "settle" at school.

Worse, the coat is not just a chain mail, but an extension of the child's persona; a shield to be penetrated at peril. All teachers have had the standard confrontation with pupils who refuse to take off their coat, their hat or other outer clothes.

Some have trespassed on hallowed ground and moved the coat. It can lead to conflagrations, especially among African-Caribbean children. Fights between them and others in the class and fights with the teacher. All unnecessary.

The position is equally as bad when it comes to books and other learning materials. They have to be lugged around all day from class to class. There is no safe haven for them, no place which can be trusted. As a result, too often books are "forgotten" at home or "lost" in transit. The physical load is often simply too much to bear. Learning suffers or comes to a full stop.

How many teachers would tolerate a school which did not provide them with pegs for their coats and desks in which to keep their books? How many would be happy to go from lesson to lesson, day after day, carrying all their worldly teaching goods plus their coats, hats and gloves? Not many, I would surmise. So, why inflict it on generations of pupils?

The solution seems to me very simple. Spend some money, use some imagination. Give each and every child a safe, dedicated coat peg in the school. If safety is not possible in the open, then create a cloakroom with attendants who give out tickets. They would only need to work a maximum of an hour a day. Pupils could then come to school and be in and of the school, rather in and of the street outside.

Likewise, provide safe areas for books, pencil cases etc. Lockers that lock. All secure.

Save money. Get the design and technology department to encourage ideas from pupils and get them to make their designs. Make sure, once installed, that they are safe and secure. That might, too, need some human support.

All the encomiums about "school spirit", all the school mottos, all the implorations in assembly will not make inner-city pupils "belong". What, it seems to me, may do is some feeling of a little piece of the school that they can safely call their own.

Over to the Royal Commission on coat pegs and lockers.

John Mair is a freelance television producer and journalist. He also works as a supply teacher.

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