Mario is a guy you cannot ignore. Big, black and handsome, he looks far older than his 16 years. But it was not his physical presence that impressed his teachers. It was his behaviour that dominated their experience of the boy, earning him a notoriety that, no matter how much he tried to improve, stuck to him like glue. When you have been excluded from one school and move to another, starting with a clean slate is not easy - for you or anyone else. When Mario moved to a new boys' school in south Manchester, his low self-esteem and lack of confidence came with him. So did his disruptive behaviour.
After a short time at his new school, he felt he was being branded as a troublemaker and nothing he could say or do would repair his image. He wanted to be accepted but felt that teachers had constructed a stereotype of who he was that did not match who he believed he was trying to be. So what was the point?
Thankfully for him, and for many of his fellow pupils, a visionary dyslexia support teacher came up with an idea, which he and the special needs co-ordinator developed to help pupils who needed not only emotional support but strategies to deal with the tensions and conflicts in their lives. With the full backing of the headteacher and senior management and a three-year grant of pound;250,000 from Excellence in Cities, they have created a learning support unit (LSU) at Burnage High School, open to anyone who needs and wants extra support without feeling stigmatised in any way.
Since January, Mario and around a quarter of the boys at the school, all with different kinds and degrees of problems, have been offered one-to-one counselling or workshops in self-esteem and anger management or a three-week mentor training programme, learning how to be friendly but firm by drawing boundaries for younger children who are also troubled. The LSU is run by a small and dedicated team of non-teaching staff who circulate among pupils during lunchtimes and breaktimes everyday to break down barriers and pick up on problems. The rest of the time, the unit operates from a carpeted, freshly painted suite of rooms that makes a stark contrast to what is an otherwise unprepossessing school building.
The driving force behind the idea of the LSU is Pete Shotton. He is the only one of the four members of staff with teaching qualifications and is also a trained psychotherapist. The others have a range of interpersonal and counselling skills; all of them are known as learning mentors, not as teachers. If behaviour is a litmus test of how the programme is working, it appears after only six months to have struck a chord with the boys by improving their behaviour. Parents and teachers also report a positive impact both in and out of school.
Burnage knows only too well about the notoriety that Mario and other "bad boys" complain of. The very name of the school has resonances of tragedy and controversy since the racist murder there of 13-year-old Ahmed Iqbal Ullah by a white pupil in 1986. The killing precipitated an inquiry led by Lord Macdonald, which, like the Macpherson report on Stephen Lawrence's murder, reflected on society as a whole as well as on the school. While the inquiry focused on race-rlated issues, it was also critical of a system that not only could not cope with the disturbed killer of Ahmed but had not acknowledged that it could not cope.
The issue of how to deal with pupils whose social and emotional problems hamper their learning, and possibly that of others, continues to be a major one for all schools. For Pete Shotton, it has been a consuming interest. "I've had it in my head for a long time how you can't separate learning from behaviour, drawing on my experience of supporting dyslexic boys. I was becoming more and more aware of how I was using psychotherapeutic methods in my work with them and how effective they were."
While the pastoral support at the school was already strong, SENCO Linda Balfe says: "We felt that more in-depth work was necessary with children who were continually getting into trouble." The programme they set up includes outreach work, to comply with the Excellence in Cities brief. LSU staff go out into local parks and bring boys who have been bunking off back into school. Some run off, says Pete Shotton, but many do not. "The boys are aware that we're here for their welfare and we're not part of the punishment system. Part of what we do is equivalent to good parenting, setting boundaries and raising expectations."
Counselling is particularly important in a boys' school where, says Pete Shotton, "there are certain expectations placed on boys in male-dominated environments". He overheard one boy telling another what he did in the unit: "Oh man, they sit and peck at your head." Pete Shotton laughs and admits that coming to the unit "isn't an easy ride. It's intensive work we do here". Because children refer themselves as well as being referred by teachers, the range of problems brought in is wide. One of the priorities for the unit is to not only focus on the big, obvious ones. "We're targeting the quiet, withdrawn boys too, looking at their self-esteem needs," he says.
For headteacher Alan Hill, launching the unit was a calculated risk that has proved to be worth taking: "It meant going into the unknown in terms of staffing and resources and we certainly wouldn't have had a chance of setting it up without Excellence in Cities funding. The biggest danger was that it would become a bolt-on, not integrated into the philosophy and practice of the school. But the planning and lateral thinking that went into it has meant that they've hit it right: the team aren't teachers but they're also not separate from teachers in the eyes of the pupils. The fact that they're non-teaching staff has been crucial, bringing a very special dimension into it. They've bridged the notion of teacher and classroom assistant: adults who are authoritative and strong, professional and caring."
For Chris, a sporty Year 11 lad with a history of fighting, it really has been crucial: "I felt that I couldn't really talk to my head of year or other teachers about my problems. It's not that kind of relationship. So when I got involved with the unit and one of them came for a home visit, my mum was dead chuffed. She'd been thinking I needed some kind of support for years."
Has it helped? "I've calmed down a lot since coming here. I can control myself in situations where before I might've just jumped in and started fighting. And I'm definitely going to finish school."