You can't just wrap respect in a policy initiative

18th May 2007 at 01:00
"Ooh, that's not something you see every day, is it?" gasps a school visitor. "Gosh! How unusual," says another. And what is it that surprises these prospective parents when they visit our school? Not our results, but good old-fashioned manners.

Quaint, maybe. An elusive, forgotten quality in society if current news stories are right, yet thriving in our school community and many others.

And it's not something we just put on when we have guests. Pupils stand up when an adult enters the room, hold doors open (for adults and one another) and offer to carry things if they see someone struggling. Simple courtesies.

Lest you think our school is for bland little darlings, I assure you these are normal teenagers. They swear, fight, lose their temper, but they are helped to calm down, admit mistakes, be good losers. They are taught respect - for themselves, for others and the community we share.

We hope they learn from example. Thus, the whole community is committed to being decent and kind to one another. A polite "good morning", a kind word or gesture. For us to function as a community, we all buy into the code of behaviour. We don't need classes in how to say "please", "thank you" or the vacuous, "Have a nice day." So why does the Government think we need "social and emotional aspects of learning" (Seal) to rescue us?

David Cameron says we are discourteous. Tony Blair wants to teach children civility. The schools minister Jim Knight feels we need "golden rules and basic values". More nanny state social control or a response to a genuine need?

The statistics paint a grim picture. Every day last year, more than 200 pupils under 11 were sent home from school for bad behaviour, including attacks on teachers and classmates. Sixty boys aged four were expelled. One in 10 teenage boys has been suspended for bad behaviour. A third of girls have been in a fight in the past year. Outside school, we see road rage, gun rage, politicians lying, footballers assaulting each other on the pitch, celebrities being racist and the media giving credence to such behaviour through its coverage.

It's not in the schools that we need Seal. Back in class with Year 10, Fikayo, a young man with his own anger issues, gets up to give his speech on racial harmony. For three minutes he captivates the class and brings me to silent tears. He has learnt the power of language as Kipling's "most powerful drug known to man". Fikayo calls for respect from us all to one another. Not the respect that a politician says we should automatically give, but the respect we bestow only when we have learnt to respect ourselves.

That's something that comes with wisdom, not age, and not through another liberal, quick-fix policy initiative that teachers are expected to handle.

Politicians, if you're reading, come and listen to Fiakyo's speech. Learn respect. Please.

Julie Greenhough teaches English in a London secondary school

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