When Lorna Farrington took over the headship of Highfield Junior School in Plymouth six years ago, she came across bullying boot boys, aggressive parents, widespread graffiti and foul language. The unshockable Ms Farrington was shocked. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a sink school.
Ms Farrington, a veteran of special needs teaching in inner city schools, however, loves a challenge. She and her staff set about developing an eclectic mix of strategies to get things on track: a behaviour management programme, a school council, peer mediation and circle time, among others. "I didn't come here to impose my philosophy on the school," she insists. "It was the school that engendered a philosophical response that works. Everything that we have done has been informed by what staff and children have to say."
Behaviour improved very quickly. But when she reviewed some of the early innovations with the children, they told her straight: "We like this new system but we'll always do things to irritate you because we don't like adults telling us what to do."
Ms Farrington threw the ball right back. "Okay then, you'll have a say in how things are done around here." The school has not looked back. Not that it has been plain sailing. Far from it. While the school on the Efford Estate has turned itself around - with the ultimate accolade coming in a report from the Office for Standards in Education, praising its behaviour management and the emphasis on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development - the struggle continues.
About 20 per cent of Highfield's pupils display "challengi ng behaviour". "We have children here who can't stand conversation. They come in and whack someone over the head instead," says Ms Farrington. The cumulative effects of long-term unemployment and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the holidaymakers' playground that is Devon, continues to grind families down.
But the headteacher was convinced that given the exceptional needs of her pupils, it was necessary to make them partners in their academic, social and emotional education. It sounds unbearably trendy, but seeing it in action leaves you reeling with the reasonableness of it. While children do not run things at Highfield Junior, they have a say in everything that goes on, from how to deal with someone who behaves disruptively, to how to make an unhappy child feel happier, to lobbying for getting lockers installed and then raising the money for them - and even being involved on interview panels to vet prospective new teachers.
Sitting in on a class doing circle time or observing a group holding a school council meeting (a kind of whole-school circle time), you are struck by how well the children communicate with each other, working collaborati vely rather than trying to out-manoeuvre each other. Every year group focuses on a different theme in its circle time. In Year 3, the emphasis is on self esteem and self expression; in Year 4, it is on caring for each other; in Year 5, on supporting others in their choice of behaviour and in Year 6, living in a democracy. "By the time they leave," says the head, "we hope that most of our pupils will have internalised basic rules and will know that society does not always write down the rules for you to follow."
In class circle time, boys and girls discuss, listen to each other, are respectful and tolerant of differing views, and seem to delight in sharing problems and working out solutions. In addition, each class works out its own rules that it undertakes to abide by.
But it is in the problem-solving sessions that the circle times get really interesting. Take the way one focused on the behaviour of Paul, a boy whose bullying behaviour was unacceptable to his classmates. Previous strategies had yielded no change. So the children decided to invite Paul's mother in to talk together about how they could all help him improve his choice of behaviour. Ms Farrington says: "She came to the class meeting, as invited, and the children said 'we like your Paul but he's making choices that are driving us crazy'." Instead of being hauled before a headteacher at her wits' end with his naughtiness, Paul's mother, the children and the staff together disentangled the reasons for his bullying and explored ways of tackling it.
Guardian Angels - a one-to-one peer support system - are sometimes the answer for children whose insecurity or unhappiness leads them into anti-social behaviour. It was brought in as one strategy for Paul. Ross, nine, explains: "I'm a Guardian Angel. I look after Robert because he's always running out of class. I keep an eye on him. If he's on his own, I'll play with him. "
There are also peer mediators, trained by staff and chosen by their classmates. James, nine, explains their role. "Most of the time people need mediators for the little things they can't deal with. So every playtime, two mediators walk around the playground with a clipboard. And if you have a problem, you go up to a mediator to help sort it out."
There are no dramatic fireworks in any of these strategies. They are not particularly innovative. But what has been so striking about Highfield's approach is how the combination of different strategies has created an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.
Underpinning everything is a fundamental commitment, in Ms Farrington's words, "to giving the children the skills they will need to function in the outside world: how to engage in conversation, how to function in a group, how to describe their feelings in language".