At St Edmund's girls' school in Salisbury, places have been laid at a dining hall table. Each is set for an elaborate five-course meal with rows of knives and forks, folded napkins and a variety of glasses. But this is not a PTA fundraiser or a formal event for school-leavers. Instead, Year 7 and 8 girls are learning the classy way to eat marshmallows.
"If you can eat a marshmallow with a knife and fork, you can eat anything,"
says Rachel Holland, a former independent school maths teacher and house mistress who now runs a company teaching modern manners. The 14-week "life beyond the classroom" course at St Edmund's is one of her tailor-made programmes. And eating marshmallows is just the start. "We cover conversation skills and things such as eye contact. And we look at personal presentation and how to dress for different occasions, why it's better to wear cotton next to the skin so you don't sweat, for example. The emphasis is on building confidence in all kinds of social situations."
The manners course is one of more than 150 on offer as part of the St Edmund's enrichment programme. So why do girls plump for the mysteries of the RSVP rather than trying out gym moves or recording pop songs? "The pupils love it. It gives them a real confidence boost," says director of sport Geraint Jones, who is responsible for the programme. "We market the course carefully, highlighting advantages such as raising self-esteem, but it would work at any school. You have to help pupils see how presenting yourself well and being able to deal with all kinds of people can be a real advantage."
It's not only in a Salisbury state school that updating the idea of manners is such a hit. Lincolnshire Police have been working with primary children at an eight-week "knight school" based on the chivalrous code of the medieval battlefield. And during 2005, five books battled over the UK manners market while a similar upsurge was reflected on bookshelves in Germany, Holland and the US. "There's been a boom," says Ms Holland, who has seen demand for her courses flourish. But why?
"Some people think of manners as an old-fashioned obsession with petty things," says Thomas Blaikie, author of one of the recent wave of etiquette books, Blaikie's Guide to Modern Manners, and teacher of English at a secondary school in London. "But good manners is a sign of more important attitudes. It's about paying attention to other people as well as yourself."
Mr Blaikie points out that unlike old-fashioned forms of etiquette, many of which emerged out of the code of behaviour at the court of Louis XIV, modern manners are not about class or sexism. "It's less about ritual and more about respect."
Some of the surge in interest is due to the influence of new technologies.
With use of mobile phones and email growing so fast, there's been little time to agree the rights and wrongs of "cyber manners" and many of the old conventions need rewriting. But Mr Blaikie believes there are other reasons for the renewed interest. "After the 'me' culture of the 1980s and 1990s, there's been a change," he says. "People don't know their neighbours, they don't feel secure in their communities, and there's lots of publicity about anti-social behaviour, particularly among young people. The idea of good personal relationships begins to make sense."
At St Edmund's, Ms Holland is determined pupils realise how good manners can help relationships flourish. "I try to show what an impact small, personal touches can make. In the age of the texting, young people don't learn that the slightest intonation or inflection can mean so much. They don't learn how to read the signs of something like nervousness. These are the building blocks for any relationship."
Ms Holland also emphasises the practical advantages of sprucing up pupils'
manners. An Industrial Society report in 2001 found that more bosses are choosing staff for their self-presentation skills rather than technical ability or experience, while ongoing research at Oxford University has also found that good manners can be as important as academic qualifications when it comes to impressing an employer.
Ms Holland finds some of her most successful courses are those which help prepare sixth-formers for the workplace. "It's things such as how to have a polite conversation, how to sit in a chair. It sounds straightforward but it gives them a real advantage in the jobs market." Even at university level, she is in demand, teaching students everything from handshakes to dress codes before they meet employers.
Some schemes aim to get children thinking about manners at a much earlier age. At Thorplands primary in Northampton, children and their parents are invited for breakfast. This is not unusual, but the focus is not so much on a hearty start to the day, as on learning basic table manners. "Children are asked to set out plates, wash their hands and ask nicely for things to be passed along the table. They're taught not to interrupt. It's a social event, about giving time to listen and share ideas and making sure everyone has a voice," says headteacher Mary Slaymaker. The scheme aims to build self-esteem and improve speech and language - with manners as a starting point.
Working in an area which has been a target of the Government's anti-social behaviour unit and with children who struggle to access the curriculum, who are newly arrived in school or have difficult home circumstances, Thorplands insists on good manners as the building blocks for good relationships. "It's a key way of getting children to interact effectively," says Mrs Slaymaker. "And they love it. They're not on the edge of their seats waiting to go - they enjoy learning how to behave nicely to each other."
At St Edmund's too, Mr Jones has no doubt that raising the profile of good manners within the school has had a positive effect. "We're one of very few state schools offering this kind of thing, but I don't see why. It fits well under the Every Child Matters banner: it's about looking after each pupil's well-being and working towards fulfilling their potential."
Rachel Holland can be contacted through her website: www.rha-manners.co.uk
TIME FOR FENCING AND BELLY DANCING
St Edmund's, with funding from Sport England, is piloting an alternative school day based around its enrichment programme. School finishes at 2pm twice a week and at 3pm on another two days, with enrichment classes on offer every day until 6pm.
There are more than 150 different activities a week. Some are sports-based, including fencing, self-defence, belly dancing and boxercise. But there are other clubs ranging from chess and choir, to glass-making, sculpture and building radio-controlled cars. Classes are free, and are aimed at key stages 3 and 4.