Polite academy for pupils

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Do good manners begin at home or should schools be teaching children to mind their Ps and Qs? Hilary Wilce reports

Children today are disgusting little oiks, right? They eat with their mouths open, let doors slam in people's faces, never say please and thank you, and yell "Wot?" when asked a question. And that is just for starters.

Do not forget the way they park their feet on train seats, hold their knives and forks wrongly, push to the front of queues, shout across other people, and seem to have failed to have grasped that four-letter words are not normal conversation. But the Daily Mail has a solution. It thinks that teachers need to teach them manners - and, surprisingly, a growing number of schools are starting to agree. Of course, all schools enforce rules about behaviour, and most teachers will prod a sullen student into saying "thank you".

But that is half-hearted stuff compared to the formal teaching of etiquette that is now creeping back on the agenda. People everywhere, it seems, have had enough of uncouth youth. Visit any bookshop and you will see that it is not only Lynne Truss, the best-selling author, who is drawing the line with her book on rudeness, Talk To The Hand, but also rafts of lesser writers who are producing tomes on manners. The head butler of the Lanesborough Hotel, in London, now gives Saturday afternoon table manners lessons (pound;45 a head) to children aged eight to 13, and the Government wants to create "a culture of respect" by getting children to know how to behave at the dinner table.

Then there is Gary Brown's Knight school. This is an imaginative initiative set up in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, by the police sergeant to introduce youngsters to the old-fashioned virtues of honour and chivalry. So far about a 100 six to eight-year-olds have gone through his eight-week programme, learning about appearance, manners and good deeds, and, according to local police, crime in the town has halved.

Pam Powell, head of Spilsby primary, says the school was set up because of concerns about out-of-school behaviour. "We are very strict on it, I can't imagine a school that isn't. But the Knight school helps children who may go down the wrong path. It gives them confidence, builds up their self-esteem and shows them how not to be afraid to think they can make the right decision."

Modern life, she points out, is changing, and some things can no longer be taken for granted. In Lincolnshire primary schools there are no longer hot lunches, so although her pupils have to sit and eat their sandwiches properly, they are not learning how to use cutlery. And when pupils visited a local churchyard for a remembrance service, some needed reminding to be respectful. "They won't necessarily have been near graves before. What we try and do is help them have good manners, and back up, hopefully, what parents are doing at home."

Like most people, Penny Palmano, author of Yes, Please. Thanks!, a best-selling guide to teaching children manners, believes the job of teaching manners is that of parents, not schools. "It has to start at home.

Children follow what their parents do, so we need to start expecting much more from parents. We always say 'Ghastly children!' but it's really not their fault."

However, she points out, the Government seems intent on cutting the umbilical cord at birth by pushing parents out to work and devaluing family time. "I think we need a kind of Jamie's School Dinners to wake us up to this. After all, the problems are right there under our noses."

But what do schools do in the meantime? Do they put up with the dropped food and banging doors? Or do they roll up their sleeves and teach table manners and essential politeness?

Patricia Bateley, head of Quarry View primary, Pennywell, in Sunderland, says yes they do. She has brought rigour to lunchtimes with pupils being taught to sit properly at tables and handle their cutlery correctly. "There were one or two parents who said 'Why does it matter if my child eats their peas with a fork or spoon?' but we have a school writing script, and we have a school vocabulary, and this is no different. Children don't have to do it outside school if they don't want to." And politeness, she points out, brings children big rewards. "If they say 'please' and 'thank you', and 'good morning', and 'you're welcome', people respond well to them. It cuts out one whole layer of aggravation from life."

Also, parents - even wealthy, middle class ones - do not always know what is what, points out Rachel Holland, who has set up a business to teach social skills to pupils in private and state schools.

As an army wife she is well-versed in how to make small talk, but realised when she was teaching maths at Millfield school (fees: pound;19,000 a year) that this was knowledge that neither her pupils, or their parents, shared. Parents asked her what their children should wear to an interview; pupils said they did not know what different knives and forks were for. As a result she devised a course on modern manners that proved so popular she decided to take it out into the wider world. "Every child, no matter what their background, needs to be given social skills," she says. "Everyone needs to know how to be polite and well-mannered, but these days they often don't.

"I mean, how many schools now use email and the internet to communicate? So you lose that interaction between a member of staff and a pupil. Pupils don't learn how to go up to an adult and say politely, 'Mr Jones, I couldn't understand my homework last night. I wonder if you could possibly give me some help'. They don't learn how to read someone's facial expression, or judge when is a good moment to approach them. I think social skills should be taught as a proper subject in schools, not an add on, although I have to say I also think it helps to have a teacher coming in from outside to do it."

At The Cotswold school, in Bourton-on-the-Water, a specialist language college, where she taught Oxbridge candidates basic meeting-and-greeting and 11-year-olds communications skills, the response was enthusiastic. Alex Green, 17, said afterwards. "I feel more assured. The little things about things like posture were really helpful, too."

But some educationists have a problem with this approach. Rachel Holland's courses include many prescriptive skills - knowing how to set out a thank you letter, and when to wear evening dress - but others feel that good manners should be a general outcome of respectful attitudes, rather than a gloss of acquired tricks.

Sir Alan Steer, head of the government taskforce on pupil behaviour and head of Seven Kings High School in Redbridge, Essex, says: "I am totally in support of the idea that children need to be taught how to behave, but the idea that you have half an hour on teaching good behaviour is nonsense.

There is no magic pill. You teach it by modelling it.

"I am outside my school at 8.20am saying 'Hello', smiling, telling someone to put their tie in place, commenting on the football scores. Schools have always taught manners.

"I really don't think they are coming back into fashion. There has never been a time when 'please' and 'thank you' haven't mattered, or when schools didn't put an emphasis on behaviour."

And Graham Allen, Labour MP for north Nottingham, who has called for social behaviour to be put on the primary curriculum, stresses it is not because he wants to see children groomed and glossed, but because he knows that for children from disadvantaged homes is of even more importance. "I'm talking about the children who come to school not knowing their letters and numbers, not being able to speak in whole sentences because they've been strapped in their prams for four years with no-one speaking to them, who think the way to get something is by violence rather than persuasion.

"We talk a lot about anti-social behaviour, but we must also look st how we give children the social toolkit they need to survive in society."

He does not, he says, have any prescriptions for how to do this, and knows plenty of teachers will throw up their hands and say 'Oh my God, something else we're supposed to squeeze in!' But Mr Allen also knows the price of not doing this is too high.

"All of us, have to live with the cost of our collective failure to develop social behaviour," he says.


Essential manners

Penny Palmano, author of two guides to teaching manners, Yes, Please.

Thanks! and Yes, Please. Whatever! (published by HarperCollins) suggests all children should be taught:

* to say please and thank you;

* to say excuse me and sorry;

* to listen and respond in conversation;

* to smile and make eye contact when talking to people;

* to be disciplined in understanding and obeying instructions;

* to respect family and friends;

* to respect adults equally, whether teachers or lunch ladies;

* to respect their own and other people's belongings;

* to have good table manners;

* to show concern for others by holding open doors, helping with coats, giving up seats, and helping anyone who is struggling;

* to introduce themselves confidently;

* to have the confidence to behave correctly in different situations;

* to be thoughtful about behaviour in public by not spitting, swearing, littering or using a mobile phone or iPod inappropriately.

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