A thoroughly modern etiquette expert is helping to give teenagers who want to win top jobs and university places the edge in an increasingly competitive environment. Ruth Campbell reports

TO most modern teenagers, etiquette and deportment classes are something from a bygone era, a time when genteel young ladies were taught to glide across a room with a pile of books balanced on their heads, in between lessons in elocution and flower arranging.

Today’s students prefer to read books rather than wear them on their heads and those old-fashioned British finishing schools which helped prepare well-off girls to become debutantes, chalet girls and accomplished hostesses closed long ago.

But one etiquette expert believes that, now more than ever, teenagers who have been brought up with smartphones, iPods and Facebook need lessons in basic skills such as how to carry themselves across a room and make polite conversation with a stranger.

Belinda Alexander, who runs modern etiquette courses in schools all over the country, including at Ampleforth, Queen Margaret’s in York, Durham High School and Westfield School in Newcastle, is increasingly in demand.

But, unlike the finishing schools of the 1950s, her classes are more geared towards winning jobs, university places and business contracts than rich husbands. They also cross gender boundaries, with boys as much as girls wanting to brush up their interview techniques and conversational skills.

Many pupils, highly successful academically and in sports and the arts, can struggle to win jobs or get places at top universities despite their dazzling CVs, says Belinda, a former Vogue and catwalk model who went on to run her own model agency.

It was while teaching at the London School of Modelling that her lifelong passion for teaching the young about confidence, good manners and the significance of body language began. “How can a student with excellent grades achieve a position in advertising, teaching, marketing or journalism if they are displaying negative messages? The answer is simple: they won’t.”

Belinda believes classes such as hers can give students the edge they need to stand out in the selection process in these increasingly competitive times. “That is why a growing number of schools are making an education in manners a high priority and etiquette classes are in such demand,” she says.

Fifteen years ago, she ran her first secondary school life skills course, which included teaching the art of conversation and interview technique as well as personal grooming and deportment, at a school in London which wanted to help prepare pupils for university interviews.

Now she teaches at 50 schools, mainly in the private sector, throughout the UK and Ireland.

“I am still going back to many of the earlier schools I worked at 15 years on. That says a lot,” says Belinda, who also runs communication skills courses for staff in large corporations as well as tutoring privately.

She believes smart phones and social networking, along with changing patterns of family life, have contributed to a general dumbing down in communication skills. “Busy families may no longer have time to create traditional opportunities for developing social skills,” she says. Also, media images and peer pressure can have a powerful, often negative, effect on self-esteem.

Her main aim, she says, is to encourage confidence, strong social skills and good manners. “It’s about mindfulness and respect. Manners bring about confidence, which is such a powerful tool. With it we feel more equipped to communicate well.”

Her classes resemble a manners boot camp. “Many teenagers will walk into the room with their arms folded, shoulders hunched and eyes fixed on the floor. At one school I had to ask them to stop chewing gum and to turn off their phones. You would be amazed how many are not attuned to the basics – firm handshake, good eye contact, introducing people to each other, or standing up when older people come into a room. I want pupils to do this as second nature, otherwise why bother giving them a first-class education?”

Youngsters are constantly assessed on their presentation and communication skills yet many of them lack the social experience and self-confidence to carry it off, says Belinda.

SOMe people dismiss deportment as trivial but Belinda feels it is vital. Good deportment is not only about correct posture but about how the world sees you, she says. “It’s all about self-confidence and creating a positive impression, particularly in a job interview.”

She trains students to walk and stand correctly, how to walk up and down stairs and even how to get in and out of a car elegantly. “How to walk well is vital to your health, your spine, your breathing and digestion.

Walking ‘tall’ also gives off a huge amount of confidence,” she says.

Students practise entering a room and shaking the interviewer’s hand firmly. They are shown how to take their coat off without getting straitjacketed by the lining, how to sit, how to avoid fiddling, and taught the importance of retaining eye contact.

The art of conversation is another vital part of their lessons. Most pupils confess they find it difficult to talk to adults. “Families don’t sit together around the dinner table and talk as much as they used to. And teenagers say they feel we ask them the same old boring questions. I encourage them to open up topics themselves and to read broadsheet newspapers to help them debate and hold proper conversations. They are allowed to be shy until they are 16, then they have to present a confident front.” She also talks about telephone etiquette and listening skills.

“We do a lot of role play. I also touch on appropriate clothes and make up and why having clean fingernails is non-negotiable.”

School staff are too busy with the curriculum to spend much time on the dos and don’ts of modern etiquette, says Belinda. “Schools have to focus so much on league tables, they don’t have time for the niceties of social skills. Parents can’t expect staff to be responsible for producing hundreds of perfectly mannered pupils on top of everything else.”

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