Melanie Phillips

9 December 2005

The academy of respect

Published in: Daily Mail

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Britain's burgeoning culture of yobbery, disorder and violent crime has left politicians wringing their hands in despair. Schools find that teaching is all but impossible given the level of disruption and violence, not just from pupils but from parents.

The jails are full to bursting. The persistent under-achievement of black boys in school continues to cause concern, as does their over-representation in prison. The government's 'respect' agenda has spawned a myriad speeches, committees and even a respect 'czar', and yet makes no difference.

But there is one local initiative which appears to be making a difference to these problems. What's more, it is based on simple, obvious principles. Yet so deeply do these rub against the grain of fashionable thinking that, rather than being widely imitated, the project is regarded in official circles with suspicion and even disdain.

But not by David Cameron, who on Wednesday chose to go there, on his first official visit as new Tory leader, to launch his Social Justice Policy Group.

In the east London district of Plaistow, in an anonymous-looking building at 4 pm on three afternoons a week or on a Saturday morning, you will be greeted by an unfamiliar sight - a group of small boys, all of them black, standing smartly to attention in rows while a stocky, pugnacious-looking black man barks questions, instructions and homilies at them from the front.

This is Ray Lewis and his Eastside Young Leaders' Academy.

Lewis used to be the governor of a young offenders' institution. Distressed beyond measure by the relentless procession of young black men drifting through his jail en route to a lifetime of crime, he finally had enough of presiding over this assembly-line of wasted potential. He decided to break the vicious cycle of black under-achievement and criminality.

Two years ago, following the example of a similar project in Louisiana, he started his charity-funded academy as a kind of supplementary school with knobs on for young black boys with promise who are in danger of falling into delinquency and prison. He takes about 50 boys aged between 8 and 16 who are recommended by their teachers because, although intellectually bright, they are prime candidates for exclusion through their disruptive or violence. His team consists of ten tutors, three 'leadership instructors' who collect the boys from their schools, a cook and a full time counsellor.

I spoke to a group of eight to 12 year-olds at the academy. They were bright, keen, polite, articulate and neatly turned out. They all sat up straight and above all they were calm.

Yet not long ago they had been the bad boys of their schools. They fought, they bullied, they swore, they smashed up the schools and set fire to them, they barricaded teachers into the classrooms, they were diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Yet in a short space of time they had been transformed from jail fodder into model pupils.

So how does Lewis pull off this feat of alchemy?

He fills in some of the terrible gaps in the boys' lives at home and at school. First and most important is that he raises their expectations of what they might achieve. He doesn't want to hear about them becoming DJs or premier league footballers; he expects them to go to university and into top professions.

Accordingly, they are taken on outings to big companies or institutions to which they might aspire - Tate and Lyle, the Royal Navy at Portsmouth, the House of Commons, Oxford University.

They are hand-picked for their intellectual promise, but most - raised by lone mothers -have never known an orderly life or self-discipline.

So along with maths and English, Lewis and his tutors teach the boys social skills - how to eat, how to speak when talking to people at a dinner, how to make a cup of tea, how to talk to women, tidiness, basic manners, health and hygiene.

The second crucial component is discipline. On the basis that they can only build self-control, self confidence and achievement if they respect adult authority, he makes them conform uncompromisingly to very strict rules.

Each session begins with a roll call where the boys stand in drill lines before marching off to classes. They are not allowed to slouch in their chairs, they are told where to put their hands and to make eye contact with the tutors.

When they walk they do so in a straight line with no deviations and no talking. If they say 'yeah' or 'right' they are corrected. 'After a few months', says Lewis, 'all of them are expected to be able to speak to an adult with humility, honesty and courtesy. '

What Lewis is dealing with is not just the disintegration of family life but also the fallout from the catastrophic failure of the education system. The boys themselves speak scathingly of their schools where they describe a horrifying degree of sloppy practice, indifference and low expectations among their teachers.

'At school they'll give you 50% for work that you should only get 1% for', said one boy. ' Here they are straight up and tell you if you have to do something again.'

'At school the teacher puts work on the board but half the time he's just reading a paper. When you ask for help he shouts at you,' said another.

According to Lewis, many senior teachers have no idea of the progress, or lack of it, of individual pupils or if they are getting into trouble - until their behaviour gets so bad it can no longer be ignored.

'At school, these kids are not corrected' he said. 'Some parents are told that their children are top of their class, but this may be a support class about which the parents have no idea. If the child has turned up on time, that's considered good by his teachers. But that's not even on the starting block for me.'

Unlike in these schools where teachers clearly expect bad behaviour and thus lose the battle before it even starts, at Eastside good behaviour is not even an issue. It is simply taken for granted. There are no excuses.

'At school they are given a lot of chances,' said Lewis. 'If they do something wrong they might be barred from a school trip, say; but then they apologise and go back on the trip. And so they know they can get away with whatever they do. Here it's not like that. If they don't do what's expected, they don't go on the trip.'

According to Lewis, the fact that he and his staff are black is crucial. Tough demands and high expectations from strong black characters creates respect among black children.

What Lewis is effectively doing is giving these boys father figures to look up to, the only ones they may have ever known. 'I treat all these boys as my sons', he says, 'and we believe that the constant practice of good habits makes such behaviour permanent.'

It's not just the boys who are held uncompromisingly to account but their mothers too, who all pay a small fee. 'Most of the time the parents are the problem', said Lewis. 'I tell them they have to be here on time, they have to turn up to meetings.

'They don't have order at home. They don't eat together; nothing happens there that can be described as family life. So we work with the parent as much as with the child.

'We have a family meeting once a month. We might gently point out various things to them, like they cannot be having sex with a guy in the bedroom with the child in the next room, or that that maybe a nine year old should not be going to bed at 10.30, or what are they seeing on their Play Stations.

'We throw out six to eight boys per year and always because the mother has refused to get involved. I'm not a baby-sitting service.'

Some local schools even asked Ray to show them how he does it.

'The first time we went to one school we showed the head how to take a class. We're using a style that was used years ago. I said to the boys: 'We're learning today about how to be successful, now shut up, put your magazines away, my name is Ray Lewis and your mouth only opens if I say so'.

'They very quickly learned by my manner that I was there to provide them with knowledge and not to be messed about. At the end of the lesson I said, if you don't want me to come back I won't because I'm not getting paid. To a boy they all said, come back.'

But far from emulating Lewis's example, both local teachers and Newham council appear to recoil. They take one look at the roll-call and hiss 'boot-camp.'

You can see why the council regards him as a threat to the status quo. He shows up its own chronic failure as an education authority and directly challenges every bien-pensant belief in the book. All the usual excuses are given very short shrift indeed.

'I don't believe in attention deficit disorder', he declares. 'If these boys can concentrate on their Play Stations they can listen to me for half an hour. Self-esteem? Our boys have got too much self-esteem. We need to take this out of them and then we build them up. We love them and we believe in them, which is why I won't listen to this rubbish.'

What Lewis is doing is hardly rocket science. It's just plain common sense, old-fashioned teaching and a robust attitude towards wrong-doing and personal responsibility. But it works.

To him, the shattered lives of black boys amounts to a state of emergency. The rest of us might wonder why public money is being spent on other institutions which, far from acknowledging what they must do to address it, continue to be its principal cause.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie