Why Cameron went back to school

The Tories' education policy focuses on discipline - and their inspiration came from an unlikely sou

"Behaviour, behaviour, behaviour," said David Cameron this past week (no doubt regretting the clumsiness of Tony Blair's original catchphrase) - it's the foundation of education. The Tory leader admitted to colleagues he had been shocked by his short spell teaching at a school in Hull; the discipline had been a challenge. On 6 April, the Conservatives launched a discipline-heavy education policy, ending the right to appeal against exclusion, promising new powers to search and confiscate, and after-schools clubs with an academic and life-skills vision.

The current Conservative education policy has two strands: structural - forcing schools to do things that parents want, building on the principle of the money following the pupil; and the standards agenda - phonics, discipline, methods that work.

Cameron stated when he became leader that his education policy would not be about helping a minority of middle-class people escape the state system. With 93 per cent of pupils in the UK enrolled at state schools, the Conservative gaze is focused on that sector. This is where the discipline policy is crucial, and it comes from an unlikely source - a former prison governor and church minister named Ray Lewis.

While working as the governor of a young offenders' institution, Lewis went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to visit an after-school tutorial programme called a young leaders' academy. It was run by a former marine who understood that these young black boys had a problem with dis cipline. It was tough, but the pupils developed skills and confidence; it worked. Having first-hand experience in prison of what often happens to those who have no education, Lewis realised there had to be something better than locking young people up and he believed he had found it.

He returned to London and, with minimal funding, opened the Eastside Young Leaders' Academy (EYLA) where, with parental agreement, local schools send pupils who may be disruptive or violent after school. It has a military feel about it. The children march in line; Lewis barks high-decibel orders at them; there is mentoring. They read classics and poetry, but most importantly, they achieve self-worth and they pass exams. Many pupils were the most badly behaved at school, but 100 per cent of Lewis's students achieve at least two A-levels and 75 per cent of them are offered a university place.

Shortly after the academy opened it was approached by the then Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was curious to witness how it worked. It was the start of an almost reluctant relationship with the right. "At the time," says Lewis, "I couldn't stand the Conservatives, I thought they were all a bunch of greedy bastards. But truth be told, Iain understood what I was doing. He knows the difference between creativity and innovation." Since then, Tory involvement has spread, with the former London mayoral candidate Steve Norris and the shadow cabinet minister Francis Maude both sitting on the EYLA board.

Lewis is hesitant to talk party politics, but he does say: "Although my door is open to any political party, the trouble with people like Ed Balls is that he has never had to work in one of these schools. He will never witness a child terrorising others like I have." Lewis teaches the benefit of delayed gratification. "Everyone wants a short cut to the Promised Land. They want the car now, the trainers now - the boys have previously not been taught to wait and appreciate."

A huge bear of a man, this tough former prison governor has spent the past decade changing the lives of young black boys in London's poorest areas. The boys certainly fear him, but they are acutely aware of his kindness. "A lot of people say we are all about discipline. That is not the whole story, but it is an important part," says Lewis. "This country has an army of 'ologists' who diagnose our children, but they never fix anything. We attempt to hold young people accountable to one another, preparing them for the boardroom, not the courtroom."

It is no coincidence that Cameron's first day as party leader was spent at the EYLA in east London. Since then, "Breakdown Britain", another Cam eron social policy, has been launched from the grounds of the academy. What does Lewis think of Cameron? "Two things about David: he gets it as a father, and I'm convinced he understands the issues. I would know if he was in for the publicity shots. It was his choice to adopt Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, and that's how he found us."

Last week a new pupil, a nine-year-old, pulled a knife on his mother. "For many of our children that is normal. When I heard the statistic that a fifth of teachers have found a child with a weapon, I thought: 'Is that all?' That's just the ones that have been caught." In Lewis's approach, Cameron may have found an answer.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back