As I write this, cameramen and reporters half a mile from my school are reducing traffic to a crawl and making the daily routines of school impossible. A child of 10, apparently bullied mercilessly, has been stabbed and left to die at the bottom of a stairwell in Peckham.
We cannot imagine the grief felt by Damilola Taylor's family. It's what all parents dread and what we do everything possible to shield our children from. We run them to school, we ring their friends if they're later home than they'd promised, and we buy them mobile phones. We look at the freedom of our own youth through rose-tinted spectacles and wonder how we could possibly have come to this. Newspapers have analysed this dreadful evening, and "experts" will tell us yet again that schools must do much more to stop bullying.
We'll undoubtedly be ordered to rewrite our anti-bullying and discipline policies. Then the event will become a memory and once again we won't even have approached the heart of the matter - that we're simply afraid to discipline our children.
I've got policy documents coming out of my ears. These days, schools are required to write one for everything. If your anti-bullying policy is as fat as a telephone directory, then fine, you're doing something. If you don't get it all down on paper, it simply proves you haven't a clue. We're told that bullying and poor discipline are endemic, even in primary schools, and we read about uncontrollable seven-year-olds shouting obscenities and kicking teachers. Schools often deal with an unruly child by consulting a policy and dutifully implementing it because it's the democratic thing to do, while the child becomes ever more unruly. Eventually, when nothing much has changed, everybody sighs with relief when the child moves on.
I work in a happy, settled school, but it's taken years to achieve that, and we work very hard at it every day. We've never suspended or excluded anyone, because the children are constantly reminded of one simple rule: in a civilised, safe school there is room for lots of individuality, but not at the expense ofsomebody else. If teachers experience difficulty with children, I am always available, and I will chastise a child in no uncertain terms, however young he or she is. I spend a great deal of time with the children and I know I'm not seen as an ogre, but the buck stops with me. Ultimately, if the children don't respond to a reprimand from me, then quite frankly we've had it.
When I joined the school, I sat down with the staff and we discussed the behaviour we would accept and what we wouldn't, and we've kept to it.
We don't have "circle time" where children air their grievances, we don't make contracts with children, and we don't give charts, stickers and certificates for good behaviour. The children are expected to behave well and, like all children, they respond to a safe, secure environment with extremely clear behaviour boundaries. We've written a "policy" about it because we had to, but nobody ever reads it. You can feel our policy when you walk into the school.
Three years ago, we accepted a child who'd smashed up a classroom in his previous school. He was hard work, but quickly realised he was out on a limb when his peers simply found him tiresome and told him so. He changed tremendously over his three years with us and recently came back from secondary school to show us the As he was getting. It's not a great secondary school, but our strict boundaries obviously did something for him, and, you never know, those As just might continue.
Over the past two decades, education has gone round in a circle. We've realised that children don't teach themselves to read simply by being surrounded by books, and that left alone to discover things for themselves they often don't discover very much at all. Now we've got to do something even harder; we have to demand good behaviour from children, and we have to insist that parents back us up. If we haven't got it right well before the child goes to secondary school, it'll simply be too late.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, London borough of Southwark.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org