2nd February 2001 at 00:00
I was aghast to read recently that a dinner lady had been fired because she insisted that children and teachers at her school say "please" and "thank you". Apparently, teaching good manners was not considered part of her job. Dolloping a splodge of mash into a pool of gravy on a child's plate with a surly grunt would, presumably, have been OK.

It set me thinking. If we don't teach primary children the rudiments of politeness and good manners, then what hope have we? It's too late by secondary school. A comprehensive school corridor when lessons are changing over ranks closely with a dark alley after midnight in the personal safety league tables.

My own efforts to produce polite children were more than supported by a dinner lady whom I shall call Mrs N. She was a pillar of the village school for well over 20 years. Be it swede, cabbage or shepherd's pie, the children who queued trembling in front of the trolleys were obliged to take a portion of everything and eat it, whether they wanted it or not. A "no thank you" was unacceptable. Mrs N eyeballed those kids with a fearsome glare as her large metal spoon hovered over the veg tins. There was no refusal. Nor was there any escape at scraping time. As soon as she had finished serving, she strode to the leftover bowl and stood there, still glowering. I don't know why we had a scraping bowl. There were never any scrapings.

I stood for 14 years toasting my bottom at lunchtimes against the ancient radiator watching Mrs N in action. She was brusque and unsmiling. But she cared. She cared that every child ate a decent meal and then said thank you. For some it was just about the only decent meal of the day.

It was a tough little village, full of tough little kids. But I never heard an unkind word said against her. She retired several years ago and since then it' been hot dogs, fish fingers and pizza. I shudder to think what would happen now if Mrs N were still there making pupils eat the crusts. There'd be complaints galore.

I have to confess that not all my attempts to teach good manners were successful. The kid from hell springs to mind. We ran a behaviour programme with politeness and civility as the targets. It was organised by the welfare officer, who thought he would soon have the lad under control. The ploy was that when the boy was rude he would be sent from the classroom and not allowed back until he knocked and said please.

My abiding memory is of this pupil sitting on top of the school's upright piano laughing, chortling and causing havoc during a student teacher's PE lesson which was being videoed. When he tired of this, he returned to the classroom to be let back in. This he requested by kicking the door and trying to force it while the teacher, with her shoulder wedged firmly against the door, tried to keep him out yelling, "no, you're not coming back in until you say please".

It seemed a shame to intervene as I watched from the office, rolling about laughing at this predictable outcome. The programme was abandoned, after which the lad spent many a happy afternoon sitting on top of a wooden shed in the playground. "I'll only come down if you say please and thank you," he would taunt. But I felt well pleased: these two words were a pleasant change from his usual "f... off".

What worries me, though, is that somewhere out there is a former student who possesses a video of a kid kicking in a classroom door, a teacher screaming go away you can't come in, and me doubled up with laughter in the office doorway. If you're out there reading this, I'd love that video back - please.

David Thomas is a retired primary head. He lives in Leeds.

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