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THE scene is enough to appall those teachers steeped in ideas about child-centred education and learning through play. At the Durand Academy, a large primary school set amid tough housing estates in south London, a class of four-year-olds files into the corridor. Dressed in navy blue uniforms, the children silently divide, boys lining up against one wall, girls by the other. Following rules laid down by the watching boss of the school, Greg Martin—a man of firm convictions, once compared to Stalin by trade-union activists—the children stand with one finger to their lips, as a reminder to be quiet.
Durand pupils are trained to move about the school in hushed crocodiles. Their work is marked strictly, with low scores carefully explained. Teachers’ lesson plans must be approved by senior staff. Classes are filmed for use in training.
Mr Martin is one of a vanguard of senior teachers endeavouring—with support from Michael Gove, the education secretary—to put discipline at the heart of teaching. But this does not involve a lurch back to past ferocities. His school feels secure and calm rather than strict. “I’m four today,” a small girl whispers in the corridor, before popping her finger back on her lips, eyes agleam with birthday excitement. Her classmates wriggle happily as their teacher praises them for “lining up so beautifully”.
At a recent seminar on school discipline, Mr Gove and a clutch of star head teachers who have turned around failing (indeed out-of-control) schools discussed how firm, consistent rules are a tool for social mobility, enabling children from deprived backgrounds to escape the effects of often chaotic home lives. Mr Martin noted how many new pupils arrive unprepared for learning: unable to sit still and listen, or not toilet-trained. Half his 968 pupils receive free school meals (a marker for family poverty). Most are from black African or Caribbean backgrounds. Before the formal skills, all are taught something simpler: that they are constantly making choices, which have consequences.
Mr Martin’s approach combines the traditional virtue of discipline with the extended freedoms offered to ambitious heads by the coalition government. He has been innovating on the same site for 25 years, taking advantage of each new reform that offered greater autonomy. Last year Durand secured academy status, gaining new powers to shape its curriculum and to recruit and pay staff on its own terms. Mr Martin shows off two smart, indoor swimming pools. Swimming lessons, he explains, teach the very smallest to undress and dress themselves, which many have never tried. The larger pool is open to the paying public after midday, and forms part of a private enterprise (also including a gym and a block of flats) that subsidises organic lunches, smaller than average classes and after-school care.
The experiments seem to be working. Durand is rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate. When they arrive, its three-year-olds, chosen non-selectively by catchment area, are well behind the national average. By final tests at 11, the children are in the top 2% in the country. Achievement and calmness follow each other says Mr Martin. Disruptive behaviour is “usually about fear”, triggered when children (especially boys) do not know how to do something.
The school’s boldest experiment lies ahead. Tired of watching Durand’s high-achieving, happy 11-year-olds sink or fall prey to bad influences at their next schools, Mr Martin is opening a middle school and, in 2014, a weekly boarding school for 600 pupils from 13 to 18, on land Durand has bought in West Sussex. The education department has promised up to £17.3m for the new buildings. Existing state boarding schools charge for food and lodging. This one will be entirely free.
Nothing quite like it has been tried before; Whitehall officials cannot guarantee that it will succeed. But to Mr Gove’s team, experimental risk is not the downside of setting schools free (more than 1,000 have gained academy status since 2010): it is the point. Parents will choose those schools that work. Durand, currently a remarkable exception, may be just the start.