A few years ago, teachers at a school in Kent became so concerned about standards of courtesy among children that they started teaching formal lessons in manners. It received plaudits from some and scorn from others, who thought the exercise was outmoded.
I don’t know of many schools that find it necessary to devote entire lessons to teaching manners. Yet that doesn’t mean that courtesy shouldn’t be at the heart of every school.
Some people may find that proposition old-fashioned, even archaic. But essentially what I mean by manners isn’t the etiquette of elite dinner parties. Nor do I think that social conventions cannot change – what our grandmothers found charming their granddaughters could easily consider patronising.
Nevertheless, I believe good manners are as essential to the 21st century as they were to the 19th – and there is a very simple reason why. Good manners are based not on social conformity but on basic morals and at their core is mutual respect. Every age, every generation needs to teach its children respect; that they should treat others as they expect to be treated themselves.
When so much is asked of schools, manners may be dismissed as tangential to teaching or as a task better entrusted to parents. But can any teacher imagine a well-functioning classroom that doesn’t model good manners? It’s essential if children are to develop and learn well that they are able to listen, to reflect, and to be respectful of others. It’s about teaching children to be helpful, to be kind, to forgive and to take pride in their work. If they have these skills and sensibilities, if they can learn together well, then the easier they are to teach and the better they will progress academically.
Most children learn these skills at home. But it’s essential that school staff play their part and model behaviour, too. It takes a collaborative effort, a partnership between teachers and parents, to reinforce good conduct and drive home the message to youngsters that only the highest standards will do.
Those lessons should start as soon as they arrive. If teachers greet children at the door every day with a smile, look them in the eye and ask how they are, that sends an important message: you matter to me and I expect you to treat me likewise.
One of the worst thing teachers can do is to force manners on a child. Children will not learn courtesy if adults are unwilling to demonstrate it themselves. We have to model behaviour and show them the way – holding doors open, not talking over others, helping people who are struggling and thanking them when they do something for us. As a Head, for example, few things send a more powerful message than picking up rubbish in the playground. It has a ripple effect around the school: no one is too important to play a part in keeping our school clean.
Some argue that mobile phones make it harder for children to learn good manners because the distractions are too great. I dispute that. How many times did we as youngsters have our heads stuck in a book or comic, refusing to interact with others? Is that any different to phone-obsessed children today? Every generation has its distractions; it’s how adults teach their children etiquette in this new digital age that matters.
Ultimately, a school that focuses on a purely academic curriculum without also modelling good manners not only makes teaching more difficult but also sells its children short. Character development is key. Encouraging children to be the very best they can possibly be is fundamental to a good education. Only if we model good manners can we be sure that children will aspire to be the inspiring leaders and considerate colleagues we all want them to grow up to be.
Cumnor House School for Boys is part of the Cognita Group of schools.