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Children can't be cut adrift

Community service isn't just for the likes of footballer Eric Cantona. Disruptive children can develop self-respect by being given the chance to help others, writes Anne Weinstock.

SIN bins, now known as "learning support units", have been around for years as rooms which are set aside for children who couldn't or wouldn't take part in normal lessons.

Used effectively, they took children out of confrontational situations to cool off for a short period. The announcement of an expansion in the numbers of "sin bins" from 400 to 1,000 by 2002 creates opportunities for a change in the way they are used.

In sport, a sin bin is where players are sent for a fixed period when suspended from a game for unruly behaviour. Players guilty of more serious offences can help their local community through voluntary work.

Maybe you remember what Eric Cantona did for inner-city youngsters in Salford.

Learning support units can use this as an example to pupils of how the adult world treats unacceptable behaviour: a period away from peers, and work to benefit the community.

The latest announcement has to be about more than simply saying we will meet the target for reducing exclusions by a third by 2002. The challenge is to offer a different, integrated learning experience to the troubled young people who will be referred.

The emergence of the new Connexions service and learning and skills councils provides a tremendous opportunity to get this right for adolescents.

Accepting that all adults and children learn differently is a big challenge for education. We all learn in different ways, in different environments.

What happens outside school has an enormous impact, for better or worse, on a child's ability to learn. In responding to this challenge, the units need to bring together packages of support offered by different agencies.

This might include learning mentors acting as gatekeepers to broker access to whole-family support, probably through the voluntary sector. Adolescent mental health services will be important for, say, young men with depression.

Getting a roof over your head is a fundamental need for someone who needs to leave home or whose home is inappropriate.

A taste of the world of work for disaffected young people in Year 10 would enable them to see the relationship between learning nowand earning later.

Pupils would perhaps have their first opportunity to form positive adult relationships outside home and school and gain the skills much valued by employers.

Volunteering which benefits the wider community can also provide a different context for learning. There is growing evidence that young people gain an increased ability to relate well to others through volunteering. Being of value to others has an uncanny habit of increasing one's own sense of self.

Through learning new skills, the most disruptive youngster can believe they have the ability to re-enter formal learning. Why not offer younger pupils the chance to volunteer? Units must not be constrained within too narrow an approach.

Violent and disruptive behaviour which harms others is not acceptable anywhere or at any time. The irony is that, by excluding children from school, they are much more likely to end up in the youth justice system.

Removing young people from the institution where they are being disruptive and placing them in an alternative environment sometimes changes their behaviour completely.

I only have to meet young people from projects run by Rathbone, the charity which I run that helps people with special education and training needs, to realise what a difference environment can make.

A young man, referred to Rathbone in 1998, is now on track to take his GCSEs this summer. He had been excluded from four schools, and, in 1998, aged 14, was on the of verge being excluded from a fifth.

He benefited from a weekly supported work placement, counselling and music lessons arranged by Rathbone and his school. With the individual attention staff were able to give him, he changed his behaviour and, a year later, was made a prefect and is now mentoring pupils at risk of exclusion.

An alternative curriculum, time away from his peers, and an effective partnership between the school, Rathbone, health professionals and local employers have changed his life.

Learning support units can be a such a force for change. They have to capture the notion of support for the individual and optimism for the future. And please, please, please, let us stop referring to them as "sin bins."

Anne Weinstock is chief executive of Rathbone CI, a charity which helps people with special educational and training needs.

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