It's a simple lesson: get pupils in on time, into uniform - and ban mobiles

As ministers set up a new task force to find ways of restoring discipline in class, one head's solution has led to a remarkable and dramatic turnaround at his inner-London school. Our Education Editor Richard Garner reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dick Ewen knew he had it all to do when he took charge of Islington Arts and Media School. After all, its slide into management chaos and pupil violence had been featured on national television.

Dick Ewen knew he had it all to do when he took charge of Islington Arts and Media School. After all, its slide into management chaos and pupil violence had been featured on national television.

GCSE results were disastrously low, racial tensions high, and the school - serving the tough area of Finsbury Park, north London - had become a byword for lawlessness with gang fights outside. The humiliating situation was captured in a BBC2 documentary just as he started.

Mr Ewen would be the first to admit that his answer was not rocket science. Yet the transformation he has brought about is just the sort of evidence the Government's new task force on school discipline - set up on Friday - will consider as it attempts to restore a culture of respect in the nation's schools. Ministers are alarmed at the declining standards of classroom behaviour. Yet some schools manage to stand against the tide, or in the case of the IAMS, reverse it.

Mr Ewen's immediate targets were modest: make sure pupils turn up on time and wear uniform. Mobile phones, a growing source of conflict in schools, were banned. There is no "happy slapping" - the thuggish craze for recording assaults on mobiles - in the corridors of IAMS.

His predecessor, Torsten Freidag, billed as one of the country's first "superheads", had quit after six months, leaving Mr Ewen without so much as a timetable.

Yet five years on, the change has been remarkable. The number of fixed-term and permanent exclusions has plummeted, parents are queuing up to get their children into the school and the number of pupils getting five top-grade passes at GCSE has soared to 47 per cent. The previous head claimed that saving the school would have meant expelling as many as 50 troublemakers. But Mr Ewen has taken a different route, setting up an "inclusion centre" (a sort of in-house "sin-bin") where difficult pupils can be sent for a week while still studying the full national curriculum. "It made sense to give them something to do - make sure they were still having lessons - instead of excluding them and sending them home to watch the racing from Newmarket on TV," he said.

Of all the youngsters sent to the "inclusion centre" - who are taught in small groups of around eight pupils - 70 per cent never go back.

If Mr Ewen's approach to discipline at the start of his job was not rocket science, the pioneering scheme adopted by another London comprehensive with a troubled history of violence comes closer to that description.

George Green's School on the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets sent two rival gangs from the school to Belfast for a week to show them how conflicts could take hold of a community. The gangs were then made to live together in a Big Brother-style house where they couldn't escape each other's company. The two ringleaders had to share a room for seven days.

"We knew they would either kill each other, or get on," said Jabir Udan, a community and youth worker at the 1,300-pupil school.

Thankfully, the experiment worked - and the groups (one Bangladeshi and the other white) developed a respect for each other. "Our kids couldn't figure out why they were fighting [in Belfast] because the two sides were all white," said Kenny Fredericks, the head.

"The other side couldn't understand why there didn't seem to be any religion involved in gang warfare in London."

The Government's discipline task force is led by Sir Alan Steer, headteacher of Seven Kings High School in Ilford, Essex, which has been praised by inspectors for its pupils' exemplary behaviour. Sir Alan has been asked to consider whether there should be a national code of behaviour for schools, or whether his working group should just look at good practice and try to spread it to those schools that are currently struggling.

Writing in the IoS last week, Marie Stubbs - the head whose achievements were featured in the BBC drama Ahead of the Class - said that the "culture of respect" demanded by the Prime Minister must include respect for pupils.

This message was echoed by Sir Alan. Speaking yesterday he said: "We have to be careful that we do not spend all our time talking about whether we should punish children this way or that. It is a pretty sterile discussion. The real skill is making sure you don't have to punish them at all by having a focus on consistency of good lessons and good teaching.

"Nobody is denying there are problems, but not all young people are horrible. 'Zero tolerance' is not a phrase I would use and I don't know quite what it means."

Last week we highlighted the case of Sue Groves from Chatham, whose daughter has been repeatedly bullied. Following the article, the local authority is to set up meetings with the secondary school to address the problem. "After five years of complete indifference, I feel I'm getting somewhere at last" she said.