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Don't get angry, get Julie

A full-time psychiatric nurse has brought calm to a Devon school. Steven Hastings reports

Paul Ryder reckons teachers often see themselves as armchair psychiatrists, "but they aren't experts". Which is why the head of Bradley Rowe middle school in Exeter appointed Julie Ford as a full-time member of staff. A psychiatric nurse with a degree in psychology, she is certainly an expert.

Appointing a resident psychologist was not what Mr Ryder expected to be doing when he chose a headship in "sleepy Devon". But the picture-postcard image is misleading; Bradley Rowe serves one of Britain's most deprived communities. Many of the pupils have an emotional or behavioural difficulty.

Finding professional help was difficult, and frustrated his efforts to get pupils the help they needed, when they needed it. "Often, by the time they'd gone through all the assessment procedures, then sat on the waiting list, the therapy was no longer appropriate. Sometimes, they had already been permanently excluded from school."

So Mr Ryder came up with the idea of bringing the services to where they were most needed: in the heart of the school. A full-time psychiatric nurse would be shared between the Bradley Rowe first and middle schools, with half the funding coming from the NHS and the other half from the schools.

Julie Ford was appointed in July last year. Pupils with behavioural difficulties now get regular contact time and problems can be picked up early. "I used to work with adolescents in hospitals, but you were always thinking, 'If only I had got to them sooner'. Now I can deal with problems at source," she says. "And because I'm based at the school and a familiar face, it's no big deal if a pupil gets referred to me. It's not going to label them for life."

Ms Ford's official title is"pastoral care co-ordinator" rather than psychiatrist or psychologist - words, she says, that can carry "unhelpful" connotations. She is definitely not a teacher. "That's important. It means I can visit the families of the children I work with without being seen as a threat or an intruder. Many parents are wary of teachers."

But whatever the job title, Ms Ford's methods are clearly drawn from psychiatric practice. Her room, for example, has been decorated - and re-decorated - by those who visit her for art therapy. It also contains props that might find their way into role-play exercises. But most of the children she sees are unaware of the agenda behind the activities; they just have fun. Far from feeling any stigma at being sent to "Miss Julie", the children often seek her out of their own accord.

One of her first tasks was to discover why so many children at the school had behavioural difficulties. Here she was helped by the position of her office, which overlooks the playground, giving her a bird's-eye view of the break-time human zoo.

Julie Ford had been told that parents were concerned about bullying. But what she observed from her window was a quite different pattern of behaviour. "There was plenty of aggression, certainly, but no one was being systematically targeted. I was seeing random acts of violence from children whose first impulse was always to lash out."

She has identified a theme which she believes helps to explain many of the incidents: difficulty with language. "Many pupils lack the words to explain what they are going through," she says, citing the case of a six-year-old boy who, after a long role-play session working out his frustrations on a soft toy, finally managed to define his anger as the feeling that "every bone in my body is about to snap". Ms Ford says: "It's a very poetic image, but it was born out of inarticulacy."

She is developing a strategy for helping pupils to express themselves non-violently; the aim is that the children in the first school will learn an "emotional" vocabulary alongside the usual nouns and verbs. And she has put together a programme on anger management for the middle school, which she sees as part of a long-term effort to improve emotional literacy.

But senior teacher Jayne Mugford, Bradley Rowe's interventions manager, says Ms Ford's biggest impact has been not on pupils but on staff. She points to a "shift in attitudes" throughout the school, with staff encouraged to place poor behaviour in a wider context. "She's forced us to question why children act in a certain way, always to try to go one step further back. The challenge is to make the school right for the child - not the child right for the school."

Some teachers were initially wary of this philosophy, and sceptical about having a psychiatric nurse on the staff. But Ms Mugford says they were "quick to climb on board" when they saw a dramatic improvement in classroom behaviour. "Julie got results very quickly. There were two pupils whom I didn't expect to be with us much longer. But not only are they still here, they are doing well."

Ms Ford's non-teaching background has also helped her cast a fresh eye over long-standing problems. She noted that some staff had come to accept classroom disruption as inevitable, while others interpreted poor behaviour or bad language as a personal affront, or were quick to blame parents. Her aim has been to replace these ingrained assumptions with a more optimistic and open-minded atmosphere. "I am here to support the teachers, the pupils and the families. I can't just take one group in isolation; I have to work across the board. Of course I can't solve every problem overnight, but each child we help is a bonus."

Some pupils with severe behavioural problems are still referred to external psychologists for more intensive therapy, but Ms Ford hopes her work with the younger pupils will mean that in five years' time there will be far fewer referrals - and no exclusions.

Bradley Rowe must find the funds to retain Ms Ford, whose appointment Paul Ryder says has had "more impact than any other single initiative at the school". But Devon LEA has still to be persuaded. It has turned down an application for funding for next year. "It's disappointing," says Mr Ryder, who is determined to find the money direct from the budget again. "But we are constantly gathering data on the work Julie does and eventually it will add up to a strong case for financial support. This kind of investment saves money in the long term."

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