By Maggie Ritchie

THE headmistress at my all-girls’ school used to measure the length of our skirts and tell us off for looking like ‘Victorian prostitutes’ if we wore them too short with over-the-knee socks.

And two girls who had the temerity to sit on a wall and eat chips in their uniforms were called out in an assembly as having disgraced the school.

So, I read with interest about the head teacher who has infuriated parents by making smiles compulsory at her strict school in Leicestershire. The new rules for kids going back in September also include never looking out of the window while in class, maintaining eye contact with the teacher whenever they are talking, and not picking up a pen or ruler until a teacher gives them the OK.

Turning around is forbidden “even if you hear a noise” and they must never forget to say Sir or Miss, and always sit up straight in class.

The rule book set out by Natalie Teece, the new head teacher of John Ferneley College in Melton Mowbray, says: “Smiling is one of the most important ways to positively influence people. You always smile. You are polite and welcoming. When you greet someone, you smile. When a teacher says hello to us in the corridor you reply with an upbeat ‘Hello miss’ or ‘Morning sir’, and you smile.” Oh, and pupils should thank the teacher for the lesson as they leave in single file.

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It all sounds rather draconian to our ears in these days of child-centred parenting and education. But maybe she has a point.

After all, it’s important to teach our children how to behave in a civilised way and to treat other people, particularly their elders and those in authority, with respect and courtesy.

If we don’t, we’ll be doing them a huge disservice. They’ll be going out into the adult world some day and will have to get along with people.

We’ve all met youngsters who won’t look at you during an exchange, and it does grate. It’s bad enough having to endure big chain-sports shops with my teenage son without being barely acknowledged by an unsmiling youth of an assistant as I hand over my card.

Manners are important but it takes some persevering to instil them, as I know only too well, having gone through a brief swearing phase with my boy, followed by the sullen grunts. We’re nearly through the eye-rolls and out the other side. It’s hard work, and I can hear myself sounding like a right old nag, but I do it for his sake, so he doesn’t accidentally offend someone by not knowing the rules of social behaviour.

I know he’s kind, clever and funny, with bags of personality, but sometimes, like all adolescents, he hides it well.

Parenting is not easy, and I know that some families have harder paths to travel than mine, so good on this school in its attempt to help families by reinforcing what’s taught at home.

Weirdly, what parents objected to most about the new rule book was the “always smile” policy, with one mother saying it had caused controversy because there are children with mental health concerns, which is a fair point. Teece reassured parents that students would not be punished for not smiling, and that she merely aimed to encourage good manners.

The rules appear to be inspired by the SLANT technique pioneered in American schools, which spells out the expectation that children sit up, listen, ask and answer questions, nod and track the teacher with their eyes.

It mimics behaviour expected in middle-class families and claims to allow children to flourish in job and university interviews.

I’m all for it. Our children have been through a lot in the last 16 months and many of my friends who are parents noticed their children went feral during lockdown, isolated from their friends, and missing the structure of school. Now, as we bed into the summer holidays, their freedom and usual activities are still constrained by Covid regulations.

All the more reason, then, to help them think about others. As Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sang: “Teach your children well…and know they love you.”

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