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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 16:13 GMT
The art of making a school happy
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

Sir Robert Dowling
Sir Robert Dowling preaches mutual respect between teachers and pupils
A report by England's education watchdog Ofsted has criticised some secondary schools for ignoring sex and health issues.

Some do not bother at all, while others do not have specialist teachers or provide poor-quality lessons.

But George Dixon School in inner-city Birmingham is not one of them.

It has been singled out for dealing maturely and effectively with difficult issues like sex, morality and proper behaviour.

The key, according to head teacher Sir Robert Dowling, is not to be patronising.

'Bring out the best'

"Some of the kids would get a PhD in being streetwise, whereas we would struggle for a GCSE," he told the BBC News website.

"Kids are naturally caring and kind. You just have to try to bring out that quality in them."

George Dixon's situation is not "cushy" or "easy".

Its 1,100 pupils speak 39 different languages and come from as many different cultures.

Clashes of opinion, not to mention fists, are a risk.

So the school focuses much of its effort on PSHE - or Personal, Social and Health Education - and is at pains to avoid being patronising.

Sir Robert Dowling with pupils
You run a school from its kids. They are the heart of the place
Sir Robert Dowling

Sex education, for instance, is more than describing biological acts.

On the rare occasions a pupil has a baby, she is encouraged to come to lessons to discuss her situation with the rest of the class.

Experts talk to children about subjects like contraception and sexual health, without avoiding tough issues.

"We don't want to pull the wool on the kids. They know if you are being false with them, " Sir Robert said.

"You have to teach them responsibility. The pupils need to know what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

"We are trying to produce reflective youngsters with a sense of obligation."

Older children become "mentors" to the younger ones, helping to guide them through problems they encounter.

There is a "zero tolerance" attitude to bullying and violence and school rules are posted in every room.

'Happy slapping'

But firm discipline is tempered by courtesy.

Sir Robert tells all his staff to greet pupils whenever they pass them in the playground or street, encouraging mutual courtesy.

Meanwhile, discussion of PSHE in classrooms and assemblies deals with "real-life" problems - such as the recent craze of "happy slapping", where pupils hit each other, and record and send footage on mobile phones.

Sir Robert said: "I talked to the pupils and asked who was happy with the slapping.

"We came to the conclusion that the victim is certainly unhappy and that the act itself is rather cruel.

"There was no happy slapping last lunchtime."

In recent years, exam results have improved, while truancy and pregnancy rates are down.

The school runs extra out-of-hours classes, which are oversubscribed even on Saturdays.

Sir Robert, knighted in 2003 for services to education, says the school's "ethos" is vital to its success.

"You run a school from its kids. They are the heart of the place.

"You have to make sure they realise tolerance and courtesy are expected parts of living."

Schools 'ignoring' sex education
25 Jan 05 |  Education
Mixed results in sex lesson trial
22 Jul 04 |  Education

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