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A community living in harmony

When Wigton's misbehaving teens were put under curfew, a school helped heal the town. One of its teachers tells us how

When Wigton's misbehaving teens were put under curfew, a school helped heal the town. One of its teachers tells us how

If it takes a village to raise a child, how can a small town with only 5,000 inhabitants nurture a school population of more than 1,300?

Wigton is a proud, predominantly working-class town in Cumbria. It was once described by Charles Dickens as "in half-mourning" with "no population, no business, no streets to speak of". It's a place where antisocial behaviour had reached such a peak in 2004 that teenagers were put under curfew by police, banished from the streets after 9pm. It's also a town where the local secondary, the Nelson Thomlinson School, has achieved two consecutive outstanding Ofsted judgements.

In the 2006 report, inspectors commented that "students behave very well in lessons and around the school". In 2013, they were praised as being "very polite, well-mannered to each other and to adults and to visitors".

There were no signs in either report of the problems once evident as darkness fell. So what was the school doing to change young people's behaviour when they were within its walls?

`Be decent at all times'

For a long time the school had no formally written "rules" yet children knew exactly what was and wasn't allowed, and why. Dialogues about acceptable conduct were ongoing; rights and wrongs were debated and decisions were shared. A former headteacher, when pressed on the issue of the school rules, would declare, "Be decent at all times." Simplicity was seen as the best rationale, and relationships built on respect and trust formed the school's core values. Behaviour remained at a high standard within the school for generations.

So why were some of the pupils causing problems in the town at night when they behaved impeccably at school during the day? The police realised that in the holidays, as the influence of school receded, some teenagers became restless and more instances of nuisance behaviour and minor criminal damage were reported. The solution, put in place in the Easter holidays, was to impose a shutdown. No unaccompanied under-16s were allowed on the streets after 9pm. Any young people found outside after that time were escorted home.

As it happened, this show of authority was all that was needed for those few troublesome teenagers (a fairly small proportion of the town and school population) to retreat. In effect, the town adopted the policy of the school: clearly stated high expectations, boundaries and consequences.

In the time since the curfew, the town and school have developed a strong partnership. The system now in place serves as a reminder of how important it is for a school's influence to reach beyond its gates and a model of how to do so effectively.

Community involvement

A number of our pupils are involved in projects such as the acclaimed Blooming Youth scheme, in which teenagers maintain gardens for elderly or disabled people. New ways of integrating school and neighbourhood projects are also being developed.

Strong local connections

Relationships with the police are good. The school also has close connections with Wigton Youth Station, an organisation that puts on projects and social events for young people. It's a sign of the town's commitment to its youth that a number of workers at its Innovia factory, many of whom are former Nelson Thomlinson pupils, support the Youth Station through fundraising and voluntary monthly donations from their pay packets.

Active student voice

Pupils from the school take part in neighbourhood forum meetings, and once a year a school council representative is chosen to lead the meeting.

While it's important for any school to aspire to good results, for the Nelson Thomlinson School it's also important to encourage pupils to aspire to be positive role models and to behave in a way that supports and enhances the local community.

Lisa Pettifer is an English teacher and head of professional development at the Nelson Thomlinson School in Wigton, Cumbria. Find her on Twitter at @Lisa7Pettifer

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