Please Miss, don't shout

Nicola Swanborough visits a school whose pupils - and staff - can hear themselves think
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The Independent Online
The notice outside Mrs Fowler's class at the Royal School, Windsor, reads, "Remember, we speak only in quiet voices in this classroom." The settled quiet within suggests the polite reminder is being dutifully respected by the six and seven-year-old pupils absorbed in their work at the three- form first school in Berkshire.

In fact, says the headteacher, Peter Brock, the children probably don't have much cause to read the notice any more. Quiet voices have become a way of life at the school since the introduction five months ago of the Quiet Policy, a deliberate move to increase children's concentration powers by eliminating unnecessary noise pollution.

"It started as an experiment," says Mr Brock. "As a headteacher one of my biggest concerns in recent years has been children's increasing lack of ability to listen. As a society we are permanently bombarded with noise. It is a constant form of pollution and is one which induces stress, particularly in children. In a noisy environment, children are much poorer listeners and every teacher knows the stress experienced at the end of a day spent fighting noise.

"I felt that by minimalising the noise within the Royal School, we would be able to create a good learning atmosphere which allowed the children the luxury of listening."

The Quiet Policy has now become part of the identity of the school. Teachers are not allowed to shout and Mr Brock admits that he has had to make the conscious effort to check his naturally deep voice. From the tiniest of new four-year-old pupils through to the nine-year-olds, there is no shouting or raised voices within the school buildings.

The Quiet Policy does not extend to the playground, although the peaceful classroom atmosphere is echoed in the garden and playground.

The day is not punctuated by the startling ring of the school bell and Mr Brock no longer bellows across the school playground from his office to attract a child's attention. "I had re-educated myself to walk over to the children and address them quietly," he explains.

Communication throughout the 90-pupil school is in quiet, conversational tones. A raised arm by the teacher in the playground or garden at breaktime signals it is time to go in, and the request "ready position" is the accepted cue for pupils to stop what they are doing, fold their arms and look at the speaker.

"It is as near to perfection as possible in creating the right conditions to encourage and enable the children to listen," says Mr Brock, "and their increasing ability to listen is becoming apparent." There is a daily concentration test in which the children are asked to memorise a list of 10 unconnected words and then repeat them in order after hearing them three times. "The quiet gives the children room to think," says Mr Brock.

Walking around the school, the temptation is to tiptoe. You can hear the computers humming. You can pick out the individual songs of birds in the trees outside. But there is no traditional rising swell of children's voices gathering momentum before being reined in by the raised voice of the teacher.

There is little extraneous noise to compete with the children's concentration either. The Royal School, founded in 1845 by Queen Victoria, is hidden within the leafy lanes of Windsor Great Park. Originally built to educate children of employees of the Crown, the school now takes 60 per cent of its pupils from outside the Great Park, although it remains Crown Aided and accessible only through patrolled security gates.

Mr Brock stresses, however, that his aim is not to create an artificial sense of calm. It is more a question of restoring a little of the quiet space which has gradually been invaded by the technological sounds of television, radio and hi-fis and the constant drum of traffic.

He admits that the school's geographic remoteness makes a quiet atmosphere much more feasible. "In an inner-city school it would be impossible to eliminate the extraneous noises which we are not subjected to here. We are fortunate in that the only external noise we have is the sound of nature and the occasional aeroplane."

Five months ago parents were supportive but sceptical about the Quiet Policy . The chairman of the parent teacher association, Clive Sutherland, whose seven-year-old son, Stuart, attends the school, says he could see that what Mr Brock was saying made sense, but was not sure how it would work in practice.

"There was the fear that the children would come home high as kites after having to be quiet all day. But I think the calm atmosphere helps to relax the children and encourage them with their work."

Gail Gilbert has three children at the school, and says that while her eldest daughter's work has improved, her son, Billy, who has just started, finds it very difficult not to run around shouting.

"Mr Brock has asked the parents to try to keep noise to a minimum and I must admit that I have found it quite hard. I am naturally loud. We've tried doing it at home as well but my husband always ends up shouting at the children," she says.

"It's great what Mr Brock is doing here, but I'm sure that when the children move on to their next schools it will take them five minutes to go back to their old ways."

Ceri Griffith-Swain, aged nine, has been at the Royal School since before the introduction of the Quiet Policy. She says that before it was brought in children were sent out of the classroom for misbehaving about five times a week but now it only happens about once a month.

"I like it," she says of the scheme. "It makes everything far less chaotic. It is much easier to work."

Harry McCaernor, nine, agrees." The teachers used to be always shouting. Now they're not allowed to, which is great."