Education: Where the wild things were: Diana Hinds visits a school that tackles its problem children by applying moral values

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The Independent Online
BEFORE starting school last autumn, 60 of the new intake of 134 11-year-olds at Sandon High, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, had already been identified as having academic or behavioural problems.

Eight months later, a few have turned out to be seriously disruptive, or even to have criminal tendencies; one or two have been seen at night setting fire to wastebins. But the majority have adapted, quietened down and proved no trouble at all.

'Something is suspended when they come over this threshold,' said Tony Parkes, head of religious education. 'They adopt the ethos of the school.'

Ethos is notoriously hard to measure, and even harder to teach. But in a recent discussion document on spiritual and moral education, the national curriculum council spelt out exactly what it expects of schools. They should teach children the difference between right and wrong and instruct them in such 'moral absolutes' as telling the truth, keeping promises and respecting the rights and property of others.

School-leavers, the document says, should be able to develop for themselves acceptable values, articulate those values and recognise that they may have to change, and take responsibility for their actions.

It is a tall order, especially at a school such as Sandon High, a comprehensive for 11- to 16-year-olds which draws more than half of its 560 pupils from a rough estate. Six years ago, Mr Parkes told Barbara Hall, the newly-arrived headteacher, that he felt he was operating in a 'moral vacuum', with children who seemed hardened, selfish and lacking in self-esteem. Anna Architetto, who has taught English and Italian at the school for 10 years, said the first charitable fund-raising she organised was 'greeted with amazement'.

Since then, staff say the school's moral climate has vastly improved. Records of individual achievement were introduced, which the pupils helped to compile, and they were given more autonomy and responsibility in their choice of courses. Charitable work has taken off, and the pupils recently raised pounds 1,200 for local causes, including the National Children's Home in the area.

'If you've got a good feeling about yourself, you are more likely to feel well-disposed towards other people,' Mr Parkes said. Miss Hall believes that morality is 'caught not taught' and that her job is to provide 'vision' for the school. The staff agree that they must teach by example, rather than by dictating to the children. 'You discuss, and you give the children time - that's what a lot of them don't get at home,' said Chris Rutter, the deputy head. 'Instead of saying 'Don't do that', you say 'Don't do that because . . .' and you try and explain to them.'

Mr Rutter said the biggest problem he faces is that the children do not own up to things they have done wrong. For many, the worst crime is to 'grass' on someone else, but the school has to teach them the importance of telling the truth. In a recent case, a difficult girl had been distributing pills in the playground. They turned out to be her mother's contraceptives. Mr Parkes worked hard to persuade her to own up. 'I told her: 'You've got to tell the truth because someone could have been hurt. You've got to tell the truth because there will come a time when you want someone to believe you.' '

While the school believes it has a role in helping the children grow into decent adults, the ultimate responsibility for how they behave must lie with their parents. Vicky Showan, a Year 10 registration tutor, said: 'If the children were in school 24 hours a day there wouldn't be problems, because they would be influenced by law-abiding staff. But we are fighting external factors all the time.'

Teachers hope to equip the children with the ability to make moral choices and to see both sides of an argument, when they may only be presented with one viewpoint at home. In a history lesson, for instance, a group of 14- year-olds debated the rights and wrongs of enclosure, putting themselves in the position of farmers, peasants and landowners. In a personal and social education session, Mr Parkes prodded 15-year-old boys into considering what moral decision they would make if they fathered a Down's syndrome baby. Religious education encourages discussion of Christianity and other faiths, but Miss Hall is adamant that 'spiritual' and 'moral' education should be kept separate, and not conflated, as they tend to be in the national curriculum council's document.

'The danger is that you can put children off. If you say this is 'religion', when you're talking about moral values and behaviour, you can create barriers for children who don't come from that sort of background. We have to start from where the children are, and then lead them forward to find some sort of guiding principle. I want to make them seekers after truth.'

(Photograph omitted)