Family at the centre

A holistic approach to mental health is making its mark at an Edinburgh school, Miranda Fettes reports

For Gemma Scott, going to school was a daily dread. She was bullied and lonely with nobody to talk to. She was anxious, couldn't focus and struggled with work. But that's hard to believe as she springs, full of smiles, along the corridor of Forthview Primary in Edinburgh Now a P7 pupil, she loves going to school.

Gemma, 11, who has received counselling via the school's Place2Be programme since September, is encouraged to express her feelings and always has someone to talk to if she's having a bad day.

Her sister Alice, 9, has dyspraxia, but with an AlphaSmart keyboard and a support class called Cool Movers, she is making progress in her schoolwork.

Their mother, Gladys, has noticed a huge difference in both daughters since they started at the new PPP merger school in August 2003 after moving to Edinburgh from Perth.

Much of that is down to the head, Sheila Laing, who takes a holistic, person-centred approach to education.

"The child is at the centre; the parent is at the centre," she says. "It's all about the needs of the whole child and the family. We try to help children feel valued, and to give them a voice. We're trying to give them a broader emotional vocabulary. Raising a child's self-esteem really makes a difference. Starting this school was a really good opportunity to support children, staff and parents."

Ms Laing wants to develop children's emotional literacy and has been working closely with guru Elizabeth Morris to develop a curriculum that could eventually be rolled out across Scotland.

"We're doing a lot of work on emotional literacy - on physical, social and emotional health," she says. "Many children in the school have many worries. Your emotional well-being affects your ability to learn.

"There's a girl who came to me crying because she couldn't do her maths.

She's just been taken into care. She thinks her mum doesn't love her, and she's not happy where she is. How can she possibly be expected to learn? One girl had been threatened in the community, another girl had been burgled, and there are children who are cared for."

Gemma acts as a buddy to P1-3 children through the school's buddy system.

"If they're having a hard time and they don't have anyone to play with, we try to pair them up with a friend," she says. "It's given me confidence.

When I was young, I didn't have anybody to play with, so I understand how they feel. I wish I'd had a buddy system when I was younger so I could have made friends. I go to Place2Be because of what happened at my last school.

I was bullied and bullied and bullied, and I felt really lonely when I was in nursery to P5."

Ms Strang says the school's holistic approach to learning and its support network for children and parents has renewed her confidence in education.

An educational home visitor is employed for two days a week as the primary point of contact for parents as part of Forthview's partnership with parents, while a toddler's group and Going to School programme help to make that transition to school easier for parents and children alike.

Ms Strang is grateful for the support she and her children receive through the school.

"You know that you're welcome," she says. "The door is always open to parents.

"My children have gone through the divorce of me and their father five years ago and they've coped with me remarrying and serious illness in the family.

"Gemma is very sensitive and was really struggling with friendship. You couldn't have a joke with her. You couldn't even talk to her. Now she just seems more relaxed. It's been a release."

As for Alice, Ms Strang adds: "The support she gets is brilliant. It's given her a confidence boost and she can now do her homework."

It is not just the wellbeing of her children for which she is appreciative; Ms Strang feels she has had her own confidence transformed through a self-empowerment course for mothers laid on by the school, called Steps to Excellence. It has proved so popular that fathers have been queuing up for it.

Gemma says: "We were worried when granddad was ill. I felt pretty sad (when my mum and dad split up) but when my mum met Steph, my stepdad, I felt happy and then we got a little sister (Kirsty, 2).

"One of my teachers told me to keep my chin up and keep smiling and enjoy life, and I just realised that life doesn't revolve around being sad and upset and worried about stuff."

Alice, a P5 pupil, says: "When my dad's mum went into hospital I went to Place2Talk (Place2Be's drop-in service) and they really helped me. They've got these faces and you choose the face that shows how you feel."

The school has a quiet room, gently lit by a fibre-optic carpet, fibres and a bubble tube, and subtly scented with an aroma stone. Pupils and staff can go there to relax or to be alone with their thoughts.

There is also a monthly candlelit quiet assembly, at which Ms Laing explores a theme, with music and peaceful reflection. Comments from the school's "feeling book", in which pupils and staff write their thoughts, are read out and the children are encouraged to think about the messages.

"I feel a lot more confident in my children's education and my children as whole people - and not just A, B, C and 1, 2, 3," says Ms Strang. "I think they'll come out better people.

"When I was at school being bullied, I didn't get any support. I'm just glad they get the support they do."

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