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Case study: safely out of the mainstream

Harry is an able, reserved Year 10 student, with a keen interest in ICT and electronics. He has a loyal and supportive group of friends and a good sense of humour. But his poor attendance caused great concern. His supportive parents were determined to help him to resolve whatever difficulty he had with coming to school - it was the start of a constructive working relationship.

Harry found it difficult to talk about what it was that stopped him from coming to school so we arranged for a counsellor to work with him. We tried every strategy we had used successfully with other students, but none seemed to work for Harry, as he always ended up returning to very low attendance rates.

This vicious circle was repeated until we reached a stage at the end of the autumn term of Year 9 when he was hardly at school. His parents were desperate, torn between trying to understand him and be supportive, but also forceful in getting him into school in the mornings. I visited him at home at the start of the spring term, and we talked about his likes and dislikes, what he felt he was good at, and teachers with whom he believed he had positive relationships.

He had many positive intentions but it was obvious that he still had some major barriers in coming into school. I racked my brains about what would be the smallest steps he could take to give him some sense of success and achievement. It was a Thursday, so step one was to get up and put his uniform on the next day. Step two was to come into school over the weekend to refamiliarise himself without other students being around. Step three was a huge one; to come into school on Monday. We agreed he would arrive through the back door, during registration, when other students would be with their tutors, and he would go straight to our learning intervention centre.

The centre has been an important part of our reintegration strategy for several students. It allows small group work, with one teacher, Dave Cuthell, and a learning support assistant, Heidi Cardey. Relationships are positive and students like being there.

Harry arrived and was welcomed. We agreed that he would attend for mornings only. This meant he could avoid the unstructured lunchtime, and his contact with other students could be carefully managed. We also involved our educational psychologist.

The part-time provision worked. The next step was to get him into some mainstream lessons. This was skilfully managed by Dave and Heidi, although Harry was always part of the decision-making process. Progress was sometimes slow and there were setbacks and problems. We remained calm, gave lots of reassurance and tried everything we could think of to motivate and reward him. He had many successes but they did not necessarily mean success the next day - or even the next lesson. Harry was unable to explain why this happened or what made a good day good and a bad one bad. It was just that some days he could cope and some days he couldn't.

Year 10 was always our goal, with its possibility of a fresh start. We kept a high level of support, and things began well. Harry was attending lessons, making his way around the school and enjoying his learning. We were all pleased, but then, for no apparent reason, he had a panic attack just outside one of his lessons. He was highly distressed and this one incident seemed to undermine many of his recent successes and his new confidence.

I spoke again to our educational psychologist. We agreed that despite all our best efforts it appeared that mainstream might not be the right environment for Harry. She recommended we refer him for a place at a pupil referral unit. Reluctantly I agreed, and we discussed it with Harry and his parents. Half a term later he is attending full-time, is doing well and greeted Dave with a beaming smile just before the end of term. His mum no longer has to struggle to get him to school.

This could be seen as a failure for the school but for Harry it is a huge success. He is attending and he will complete his compulsory education with qualifications, which will give him choices for his future. One of his choices might well be our sixth form.

Ann Duff is deputy head of John Masefield high school, Ledbury, Herefordshire. The name and certain details have been changed in this case study to protect the identity ofthe student

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