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On their best behaviour

Andrew Mourant visits a school where learning courtesy is turning around children's attitudes

The gentle mind by gentle deeds is known.

For a man by nothing is so well bewrayed

As by his manners

(Spenser Fairie Queen 1596)

The word respect is bandied about by everyone from politicians to rap artists. But at Drapers Mills Primary School in Margate they do more than pay lip service. Manners are now taught formally. The head, John Viner, felt rudeness and disorder needed addressing urgently. The school had emerged from special measures but acute behaviour problems persisted.

"We're talking violent and abusive; kids trashing classrooms," he says. He has devised a study programme for teaching courtesy and good manners and is making this available to other schools. Instructions cover four areas: the initial stage, general social manners, advanced manners and table manners.

The programme began in September 2005. It is rooted in five "golden rules": do as members of staff ask; look after your own belongings and those of others; walk around quietly and sensibly; keep hands, feet and objects to yourself; show respect to others. The fundamentals were instilled in all year groups during lessons in the school's "learning to learn" week. "First we spoke about respect, which then led us to manners," says deputy head Sue Ward. "We had a brainstorming session where children talked about all the manners they knew, writing them down, and discussing how to use them.

"We concentrated on one or two basics with the younger ones; perhaps two or three with the older ones. We'd discuss how it feels to be courteous. A lot of it was role play. You go slowly at first until things are reinforced. A lot of children want those boundaries. When we talked about saying 'please'

and 'thank you' they said: 'Okay, we understand. If you are nice, people will smile at you.' There was excitement when they came running up and said: 'How are you, Miss Ward?'"

John Viner wanted to change from a disciplinary code to a behaviour policy.

"Heavy discipline simply ups the ante," he says. "It all had to begin with simple courtesy. We drew on guidance from the Manners Matter UK website, framing a letter to parents telling them we'd be teaching manners. We also gave pointers to how they might approach courtesy at home. Even those with challenging children support us."

Children in Margate need all the help they can get. There is high unemployment and few jobs; and around half of the 450 pupils at Drapers Mills have special needs. Unruly pupils are a problem across the area, John says. "After specific lessons at the beginning of term, we back it up all the time whenever a suitable occasion arises. The secret seems to be reinforcing the same message little and often. We start from reception and continue to Year 6. We've joined the Campaign for Courtesy."

Money from the Behaviour Improvement Programme has funded a special mentor, Michelle Friday, who instils and reinforces the lessons. One element of the study programme - table manners - has yet to be taught: John Viner doesn't feel everyone is ready. A morning session with Sue Ward sees her asking Year 2 pupils what constitutes good manners. Hands go up en masse; they all know the answers. "Manners make the school nice," says Charlotte. "If we didn't have them it would be horrible."

John Viner says the children respond more politely to adults and are beginning to be more courteous to each other. It's a far cry from last year, when misbehaviour was so widespread that he excluded pupils 73 times.

He has devised a novel preferable punishment - "alternative hours", where miscreants must come in at 3pm, stay until 5pm, and are then packed off with two hours' homework. "We've used it 19 times this term. The children hate it, but we haven't had any exclusions since." Year 6 appreciates the difference. "There isn't as much swearing," says Daniel. "We used to have children dancing on the tables and throwing rubbers and rulers around,"

says Chloe. "Now there are fewer fights," says Amelia.

Year 6 pupils are appointed monitors, acting as behaviour mentors to Year 1. John hopes a calmer environment and improved behaviour will drive up standards. "But if it doesn't, we'll have helped to make more-rounded pupils," he says. "As the Bible says: 'and when he is old he will not depart from it'."

The study programme is available on request.


Some resources for schools are available

Manners matter

* At the initial stage teach the class they should always refer to you by name.

* They should always let an adult go through a door first and know it is good manners to hold the door open.

* When taking the register, greet individuals by name, using "good morning", and insist they respond in kind.

* Insist on simple rules - that children say please and thank you, using the adult's name; that they greet each other politely; that they practise keeping control of their temper and say "excuse me" if they interrupt someone.

* Hints on advanced manners, for children older than eight, include stressing the need for hygiene and to apologise spontaneously when in the wrong.

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