13th July 2001 at 01:00
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 a hammer and some nails. What is it? Give 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. I spend some of my time supply teaching in a variety of inner and outer London schools; the good, the bad, the very indifferent and the truly dreadful. So, too, their learning environments. But in very few of them do children have their own safe space within the school.

They are, it's not exaggerating to say, physical and learning gypsies; constantly on the move. They never take off their "outside" clothes 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 some find it difficult to settle.

Worse, the coat is not just 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 children who refuse to take off their coats, their hats or other outer clothes.

The position is equally as bad when it comes to books and other learning materials. Children have to lug them 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. So, why inflict it on generations of pupils?

The solution seems simple. Spend some money, use some imagination. Give each and every child a safe, dedicated coat peg. 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 than an extension to the street outside.

Similarly, provide safe areas for books, pencil cases, and so on. Lockers which lock. You could even save money by getting the design and technology department to encourage pupils to make their own designs. Just make sure that they are safe and secure once they are installed. All the encomiums about "school spirit", all the school mottos, all the implorations in assembly will not make inner-city pupils "belong". What might do is some feeling of a little piece of the school they can safely call their own. Over to the Royal Commission on coat pegs and lockers...

John Mair is a freelance TV producerjournalist. He also works as a supply teacher

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