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Bridge over troubled waters

In the final part of our series on small schools, Jean McLeish visits Black Isle Education Centre where disaffected boys enter and leave as fulfilled young men

WHEN FORMER pupils come back, it's often an emotional scene. They're often dads themselves, driving a carload of kids up the drive to an impressive country house, showing off their old school to their families.

Teachers here could be forgiven a moment of sentimentality. Those men have built successful lives against the odds and, mostly, thanks to committed staff who helped them battle through.

The Black Isle Education Centre is based in a rather grand Victorian house. It's in the countryside at Raddery on the Black Isle, a few miles from the seaside village of Rosemarkie. It's a wonderful old house but, in estate-agent speak, "in need of modernisation".

At the moment, 12 boys travel here from nearby and further afield in the Highlands day pupils with social, emotional and behavioural needs. The school grounds in the middle of the countryside provide acres of safe space for them to ride motorbikes and cycle and simply let off steam when tempers fray.

Formerly known as Raddery School, it was run as a residential school by an independent charitable trust. But in 2001, when the charity could no longer afford to keep it going, Highland Council took it over and it was renamed the Black Isle Education Centre.

This morning, the boys are having breakfast with their teachers, before heading off to four classrooms behind the main house. They study English, maths, science and art, but first, they'll discuss the number of points they've built up this week for good behaviour and which afternoon activities they might opt for if they have enough.

Fifteen-year-old Jamie, from Fort William, sums up the ethos of the place pretty well: "If you do good, you get good back karma," he pronounces.

There's a family atmosphere in the colourful dining area as the last few slices of toast are offered round. Everyone's dressed casually and there's cheery chat from the staff, which is impressive first thing on a school day. Over breakfast, they get an idea of how the boys are feeling and whether anyone is going to need looking out for.

Gavin Sked is the head of the centre and has led the close-knit staff team since 2001. He's upbeat and positive and his credentials as a motor-cycle instructor must boost his cool rating around here. There's a nice feel about the place, like a down at heel BB where the warm welcome compensates for the peeling paint. They'd give you their last slice of toast and they do.

During a tour of the house, Mr Sked explains that boys as young as nine and 10 are referred here; most will have been excluded or be on the point of exclusion. "If inclusion isn't going to work with them, they need to come to a specialist provision," he says.

Boys come here to continue their education up to age 16, and either go on to college or a job, or return to mainstream. One boy here returns to mainstream after summer. "He's really keen, he really wants to go back with his mates, so that's him going into S2, which is really good," says Mr Sked proudly. But, he says: "We are not going to force somebody to go back unless they want to, it has to be driven by the kids."

A growing number of referrals are from primary schools and there are no admissions beyond 14. "The idea is if we've got older guys in here, they're good role models, they've been here for a year or so and they've settled down. That way you can ensure some safety and continuity for the nine-year-olds," Mr Sked says.

Staff see their role as building good relationships and boosting self confidence. Activities such as fishing, cycling, motorbike-riding and kayaking help but they have to earn the right to sought-after activities with good behaviour. A multi-agency team of health, psychological and social work professionals supports the work of the eight or so teachers, social care workers and a cook.

As mainstream schools develop better strategies to cope with pupils with low level difficulties, it's not just school refusers who come here. "You're talking about kids at the further end of the continuum, who have major difficulties fitting in with the mainstream surroundings," says Mr Sked, pausing to explain how they encourage boys to look after equipment here.

At the end of each year, if there is any money left in the kitty, the boys help decide what kind of recreational equipment they need, such as kayaks and motorbikes. Giving them ownership and financial responsibility seems to work in the past three years there's been less than pound;20 worth of damage done. And the boys have either personally paid for the damage or repaired it themselves.

The boys found a snooker table through newspaper ads and negotiated a price. "It's their table why would anyone want to damage their own table if they spent pound;250 on it?" says Mr Sked.

"We do get some nice bits of equipment if we save money during the year. It does make a difference if you're not wasting money."

He gives instruction on riding and maintaining the shiny trial bikes, which are the boys' pride and joy up at the workshops. But they're not just up to macho stuff they get baking and cookery lessons and go fishing and on trips to explore nearby beaches and places of interest. This is not a holiday camp though; there's a strong work ethic and a great drive to encourage the boys to achieve their academic and social potential.

After several unsuccessful school placements, Jamie came here: "They tried me out for a couple of months to see how it went, and it went well, so I just kept coming here. I did the Intermediate 1 maths exam and I've got science and English exams coming up soon," he says, showing off one of the motorbikes in the workshop.

"I do really enjoy it, but I can have the odd occasion where I'll tell them it's cack and tell them where to stick it and all that. It's just me in a bad mood, I say a lot of things when I'm in a bad mood."

Jamie's in a good mood now, though, astride this shiny yellow machine: "It's a Gas Gas 125, 2006 Racing Series. And every Thursday, if you get enough points, you get to go on it. You get a maximum of five points for every class and zero is the lowest," he explains.

Jamie has plans for his future: "I want to go back to Fort William and go to college and stay with my mum. I want to get into joinery or mechanics." He's also nursing ambitions to do motorbike racing.

"I like the fact that the school's a bit more laid-back, you actually get to do something. In all honesty, I do love the fact that you get to do the activities and all that. I really enjoy it. When I first came here, I was always trying to get the highest points to get on the motorbikes and that."

His pal Damien also enjoys the work-life balance here: "What I most like is working up in the top workshop on the go-karts and trailers and that. That's what I want to do when I leave school I've always worked with cars, messing about with them."

Damien travels here every day from Grantown-on-Spey and was excluded from school for a year before he came. He says he was glad to get back. "I was getting bored staying out of school, there was nothing to do when all my mates were at school. English and maths I didn't like when I first came and now I am all right with them," he says.

In the dining room, social care worker Vicky Main is grabbing a coffee break. She's been here 16 years and liaises with the boys' families from the outset she loves it.

"You hear people saying 'They're at that bad boy school'. They're not bad boys, they're just kids with difficulties. And it's not their fault, it's the environment, it's how they've been brought up maybe, it's emotional, there's loads of different reasons. And they're nice kids I think they're the best kids," she says, beaming like a proud mum.

"It speaks volumes for me that a kid who wouldn't go to school before comes here every day. You are proud when they do well, because you've had a little part in that happening for them."

Outside, newcomer Liam is chopping kindling in an out- house supervised by art teacher, Bernard Ewing. Liam, 10, started just over a week ago: "It's good. There's motorbikes and canoes and all that stuff. I'm happier here, a lot happier."

Trudi Fraser teaches English and learning support and came to the school three-and-a-half years ago from mainstream education. She has up to four in a class, which works well with youngsters who sometimes need help to master basic literacy. "How delighted they are when they can read," she smiles.

"Children are leaving here with qualifications. They remember their school positively for the rest of their lives it's not a school they failed in and I think that's huge."

It's a measure of the dedication of the staff that they've put up with a lack of maintenance at the school over recent years. The central heating system doesn't work effectively on the ground floor of the house, and a fire escape identified as in poor repair in an inspectors' report two-and-a-half years ago was only repaired recently, after Gavin Sked refused to accept further referrals.

Staff believe Highland Council is reluctant to spend money on maintenance because there's a question mark over the school's future at this location. Mr Ewing, the art teacher, has written two letters to the director of education on behalf of the staff, outlining their concerns.

"We are concerned because we've had several meetings about the future of the school but nothing concrete has come from that. There is an ongoing debate and we'd like to be brought up to date," he says.

Hugh Fraser, the director of education, culture and sport at Highland Council, told The TESS: "We are looking at how best to ensure this provision, either on the current site with upgrading or in new premises. Meantime, necessary work will be carried out. The heating issue will be addressed early in the new session."

In one of the classrooms, Jennie Gray, the maths teacher, is preparing for her next class. She teaches up to Standard grade and has been here 23 years. She loves her job and explains how the activities the boys do in the afternoons contribute to their ASDAN (Award Scheme Develop-ment and Accreditation Network) bronze award.

"Here you feel like you are a person, not just a teacher. It's different from mainstream. Boys come here and it works for them and they progress in all sorts of ways relationships, trust, attendance, self-confidence," says Ms Gray.

"We are working on the whole person, trying to build self-esteem and self worth. Once you build relationships and trust, the whole thing comes together.

"Often they will come back a few years later and they will say 'Wow, this place was really special'," she says.

And to her annoyance, her eyes fill with tears thinking about the men who come back to revisit the centre and the people who made a difference.

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