Freedom from the prisons of their past

Eleanor Caldwell

Eleanor Caldwell visits a secure school that provides contained but homely accommodation for young people who have reached the end of the care line.

Out of the classroom, out of school, into serious trouble and then where? When other care options can no longer contain them or when the courts demand it, young people between the ages of 10 and 18 may be placed in secure accommodation at Rossie School near Montrose - one of three such units in Scotland.

Under lock and key 24 hours a day, of course, but security here is also caring, supportive, respectful and determinedly educational.

Brian Hooper, the head of education, stresses: "This is a school with kids on campus." He dismisses the convenient "last resort" label, preferring to describe it as "a special option".

Pupils only reach this "special option" after severe trauma through their early lives. Case studies from a recent Scottish Office document illustrate the type of youngsters involved: a 15-year-old boy convicted of a series of sexual assaults and rapes; a 14-year-old boy with six charges of assault, plus charges for possession of a hatchet, driving an unregistered vehicle and attempted murder; a 13-year-old girl with a history of sexual activity, solvent and alcohol abuse.

"The lives of our pupils have gone out of control," says Hooper. "There's always a reason." A troublesome child might have been passed round members of the family for care, attended numerous primary schools and then been excluded from four or five secondary schools. A vulnerable child might be sexually and physically abused within the family and turn to violence and prostitution. And the children of comfortable middle class families are not exempt.

Set in the Angus countryside, Rossie has independent status, accepting pupils referred through the children's panel system or the courts. The weekly cost per pupil of pound;2,090 is paid by the local authority or the prison service. The school houses 20 boys and six girls, ranging in age from 13 to 18. They live in three self-contained units, Lunan, Tay and Dalhousie, with about eight sharing a kitchen, games room and leisure space. Their single rooms are bedecked with posters, photos, football banners and the usual teenage clutter.

Like other kids, Rossie pupils go to school every day. But transport is no problem because the classrooms are upstairs. There are a lot of doors to unlock and lock on the way, but once upstairs and behind locked doors, the school day is much like anywhere else. Pupils follow an eight-period timetable, with all the usual subjects.

With an average pupil to teacher ratio of 5:1, classrooms at Rossie are small and comfortable. In the maths class, teacher Dave Charlton (Mr C to his pupils) spends a lot of time kneeling on the floor, chatting and marking simultaneously. Having taught years ago in a secondary school in Rhodesia, he wouldn't consider returning to mainstream. "These kids really appreciate what we're trying to do for them. Of course, it's not always easy, but when you build up close relationships with individual kids, they learn to trust you and then they want to do their best," he says.

In this class, as in others, pupils are working with genuine concentration. They ask for help when stuck, ask for jotters to be marked, show off new pieces of work and ask if they've earned a merit - a popular motivator at Rossie. The eight pupils with most merits at the end of each week earn the right to a Friday afternoon class-free, activities session. Pupils can also earn a bonus period, opting into an extra lesson in a chosen subject.

With so few pupils, movement around the corridors is quiet. Next period is craft, design and technology, where the creations are stunning. Carefully varnishing a stylish, two-layered coffee table, one lad is amused by the idea of selling it for a lot of money - "No way, it's for my Mum!" The most treasured design that day was a clock, fashioned from a section of tree trunk, which was being presented to learning-support teacher Alexis Scoular, who was leaving after 10 years.

At her presentation, pupils showed the same affection for her as could be seen with teachers throughout the school. A cuddle, arms round the shoulders, hands held. Unlike in mainstream, touch has no taboo. Art teacher Liz Taylor says: "You really know you're getting through to someone when you get a cuddle.

"When they first come to art, I just let them all experiment with everything and they soon develop an interest in a particular form." The walls are covered with colour. There is obviously a lot of artistic talent in Rossie.

The classes do not just focus on "practical" and arguably therapeutic subjects. The four boys in Lynn Coull's combined languages and history class are busy working on individual projects ranging from the Second World War to German adjectives. The mainstream model for learning support is also used with a team of two teachers and two teaching assistants. Paul Gray, the head of faculty, says: "We like to think this is a very progressive department. We try to combine behavioural and educational support, and give a combination of in-class support and time within the department. We make sure that pupils have a safe environment where no one will ridicule their difficulties."

The opening of a new education block next May will make their task easier. Pupils will have to walk a little further to go to school. Serious offenders will no longer need to be hand-cuffed to care workers crossing the courtyard to the swimming pool. In addition to bigger classrooms and garden courtyards, teachers are looking forward to having a library, a science room and computer-assisted design facilities.

Cynical observers comment on the injustice of providing excellent facilities for young people who are "there to be punished". The chief executive of Rossie, Tony Thompson, refutes this: "Not many of our pupils are really switched off. We aim to create normality and recover stability for them. Education is a universal passport in life. We know we're succeeding."

Recent results in basic reading and comprehension word tests show a rise of 6 to 9 per cent. Work experience is integral to the educational programme, with local placements in garages, recruitment agencies, and nurseries.

Hooper talks of many success stories - pupils getting an added incentive to achieve qualifications and even the possibility of being offered work: "One pupil has overcome severe emotional difficulties and now works three days a week in the kitchen with our school chef."

The management team makes no bones about the fact that there are difficult days. Pupils can have serious, sometimes violent outbursts. Assaults on teaching and care staff can happen. All staff have to complete a Crisis Aggression Limitation Management course, which helps them to keep any "fear factor" at bay and maintain a friendly, calm approach.

Few mainstream teachers have a full understanding of what happens to their most vulnerable pupils when no other form of care has worked. Hooper says:

"Any teacher in the country is welcome to spend some time at Rossie. Some pupils come in kicking and screaming. By the time they go, they're weeping." More importantly perhaps, many will have gained a useful range of Scotvec certificates and Standard grades.

Hooper boasts: "One pupil left recently to go back into a mainstream secondary with 10 Scotvec certificates. With care and education working together, you can achieve success, and I think that's what we're doing."


When a youngster arrives at Rossie, George Alexander, the principal teacher of guidance, prepares an "individual education plan". For a child who has slipped through the education net, a pupil-profile record from school provides only a starting block.

In the first of a series of chats Alexander combines a friendly personal approach with a firm, positive focus on the youngster's previous school strengths.

Clear targets are set in Scotvec modules and Standard grades for favourite and less-liked key subjects. The fundamental issues of pupils' problems or crimes are tackled head-on as an integral part of their education plan.

"I encourage them to face up to their problems, whether it's violence, abuse, car crime or drugs. They then use these to prepare a piece of work," Alexander says.

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Eleanor Caldwell

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