If a government adviser on education design spent a day in a modern school for boys with emotional problems, what would she learn?

The headmistress wears a smart jacket, jeans, has a few piercings and on shaking my hand with a tight grip exposes tattooed knuckles. Her school is home to all excluded 11-to-16-year old boys in her borough, and she’s invited me in to find out how learning works these days.

My first stop is the morning briefing in the staff room. I listen to discussions along the lines of “yellow group off to David Beckham Academy this afternoon, red group ice-skating … Who’s going to help with the craft stall in the market on Saturday?” What craft stall?

There’s no uniform, first names are used for teachers – and what are all these trips? Do they do any work at this school? And where were the classrooms? I was given a timetable.

The first lesson of the day is science with Tom; I arrive promptly with year 10 yellow, and all five of them log onto Apple Macs and surf the net. Tom puts on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, just issued to schools to increase environmental awareness in our younger generation. Tom talks them through the film, helped by inserts of Homer Simpson and his melting ice-cream. Johnny is agitated, slightly aggressive and playing with his mobile. Then he gets up and walks out.

I’m worried, but nobody else is. They have support staff outside in the circulation space who chat to the boys and discreetly direct them back to the class or allow them “time out”. I learn that the school is all about removing barriers. Take away the Chubb locks, padlocks, chains, fences and barbed wire and give them access and responsibility. Then they start to engage.

Next, to the “my world” lesson with year seven red. I hear more and more of learning through projects rather than traditional chalk-and-talk. I arrive in Chris’ class as he explains how to play an ancient billiards-type game that originated in Asia called Carrom. We talk Joe down from the window ledge where he is threatening to jump and he joins me in a game. We have to flick our counters with our fingers and keep a tally on our score. Joe is good at this and I learned not to underestimate his dexterity or maths skills. While beating me at Carrom, Joe also takes me through the functions of his mobile phone, which is blasting out downloaded music. He can get me a good deal if I want one.

Morning break is in the communal dining area. I’m treated to a smoothie served by two proud boys who are on the rota to prepare them. An admirable solution to introducing fresh fruit into the boys’ diet which in turn embraces the “be healthy” rules in the government’s Every Child Matters agenda.

We talk Joe down from the window ledge where he is threatening to jump and he joins me in a game of Carrom

I think I have the wrong room when I join Roger in the library for English with year 11 blue. All the boys are surfing the net, many on eBay. The library looks conventional, with shelves of classic books, but a small informal space with the computers is where we gather. I sit next to Rob who is looking at a trial bike on eBay. I notice he is following the words as he reads them with his mouse. “Where’s Cambridge?” he asks. I explain that you can get a train from Liverpool Street station. He is then engrossed in watching the bidding. I realise this is one form of personalised learning that doesn’t require sitting in rows and reciting Cider with Rosie but will no doubt help give Rob life skills.

Lunch is back in the dining area, and although homely it is cramped. All the students are on free meals. Everyone eats together around large tables and the atmosphere is noisy, lively and full of discussions from football to a direct question aimed at me – “Are your teeth real?” We discuss the merits of wearing braces as a kid. We all clear up our own plates.

I’m looking forward to this afternoon’s lesson, art and ceramics with Dom and year nine green. The art rooms are the most traditional spaces I have seen today, the usual stacks of paper, unfinished art works and sinks full of paint brushes and paint pots. The lack of storage and display area is obvious and although there is a walled area outside it’s inaccessible. Once we’ve cut out the paper stencil that we traced from an image that was projected on the wall we make our way outside to the graffiti wall. I help Mustafa to tape his stencil up and leave him to the selection of spray cans. Pity the external space is round the corner and involves the more staff to supervise.

In my final lesson I move across to ceramics where I learn that my fruit bowl may go on sale in the school’s stall in the local craft market. One student tells me he came up with the name and graphics for the stall.

We have a discussion on how much I can sell my bowl for. This is enterprise at its best. They just need better facilities and external space.

Transformation, flexibility and adaptable space are some of the buzzwords we read about or listen to at conferences. But the core values and opportunities are driven by the individuality and philosophy of the school. From my own experience I’d suggest that the first step is to understand the individual philosophy, and this isn’t something you can read in a Strategy for Change document. You have to go back to school.