Walk into Hope Valley primary school's Quiet Place and you enter another world. The schoolroom has been transformed into a sumptuous refuge painted in rich blues and greens. There is a tank full of bright fish, the dim winter light is filtered through blue vertical blinds, and the smell of aromatherapy oils hangs in the air. A shoal of dolphins swims across a mural on a wall, behind a larger-than-life satin-tailed mermaid sitting on a rag-rolled cupboard. And then there's the sound of water trickling over stones in a small fountain and wave music playing softly.
The magic is not lost on Year 1 children, seven of whom sit spellbound on the floor while Quiet Place co-ordinator Joy Jones reads to them. "Did you like that story?" she asks. "Yeah," goes up a grave chorus from the small boys with bristling haircuts and pale faces.
The contrast between the sensual calm of this room and the bleak ugliness outside is marked. Despite a small planted area, the playground at Hope Valley, a 365-pupil Liverpool primary, looks like the car park it becomes most Saturdays when matches are held at nearby Anfield football ground. With 62 per cent of the children entitled to free school meals, and with poor local housing and high crime rates, magic is in short supply in the lives of some of the pupils.
But magic is the word most commonly used in connection with the Quiet Room. Last year, when Joy Jones was up a stepladder finishing off the ceiling, a small child entered the room and, thinking it was empty, crouched down and began reverently stroking the gold paint on the cupboards. Other pupils begged to come in and feed the fish or water the plants. One just liked to lie on the floor and gaze at the surroundings. "The kids love it," she says. "The look on their faces when they come in is unbelievable."
This room is the third Quiet Place to be created in a Liverpool primary school. And if the environment is magical, so too is its effect on children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. New Age in flavour, the Quiet Room runs a holistic programme, offering children counselling, massage and therapeutic play, as well as storytelling, art and music workshops. Parents are offered their own relaxation and counselling sessions, plus advice on dietary strategies and alternative medicines for hyperactivity, asthma, eczema and some of the recurrent infections that plague many of the children.
The schools involved try to give all their pupils an opportunity to spend some time in the room in small groups, listening to stories or soaking up the relaxing atmosphere. But the schools mainly focus on children who show extremes of extrovert or introvert behaviour. They can be referred by teachers or parents, and are initially assessed by a key worker, who looks into the child's social and medical history.
During each of the next six weeks, the pupils have three 40-minute sessions in the room. They typically spend one session with a trained psychotherapist, one with a bodyworker who massages their head, hands or feet, and one following a biofeedback programme to help them manage stress.
Interventions are tailored to meet the needs of individual children and families, says Penny Moon, head of Liverpool's early years behaviour team and a main mover behind the Quiet Room project. "We pay attention to what is needed," she says. "It's irrelevant to put a child on a diet if there is huge violence in a family and the mother is running off to a refuge all the time."
Forms of help have included mediation with other schools and helping children practise the unfamiliar art of smiling to improve their social skills. In cases of suspected abuse, children are referred to social services. "There are some families we can't help," says Penny Moon. "We don't have all the answers."
Teachers are also invited to make use of massage and aromatherapy sessions, and work closely with key workers to refer children and monitor progress. "We can't come into a hostile staff environment," says Penny Moon. "Staff are trained to link the Quiet Place philosophy to the classroom."
The project typically works with about 60 families a year in each school, and costs up to pound;30,000 per annum, with most of the money going on sessional pay for qualified psychotherapists and bodyworkers.
Millwood community primary school in Speke, 10 miles from the city centre, is in the middle of a sprawling estate. Two years ago it became the first school to get a Quiet Place; it is now an indispensable service, according to Diane Auton, head of the 230-pupil school.
Staff at Millwood had discussed the need for additional support for stressed children, but had never been able to afford to pay for therapists to work with families. Then the school put in a successful bid to the area regeneration fund which, with additional backing from the Cheiron Project charity and help from the local educational authority, enabled the school to pay for a Quiet Place.
"It's helped enormously. The massage puts children in a calm frame of mind where they're more likely to build up trust with people in school," Ms Auton says. "Many of our children are quite distrustful because they've had negative experiences with adults outside school, or they don't believe people could possibly like them." She cites the case of a boy from a family with a long history of school rejection, who arrived at Millwood with "no eye contact, smiles or speech" and was referred to the project. "Almost immediately he began to be more cheerful and to smile," she says. "Now he's eight and happily coming to school every day."
In the two-years since Quiet Place activities began at Millwood, national test results have also improved substantially. "I don't think it's unconnected," says Diane Auton. "The Quiet Place makes a significant contribution to the emotional health of the children, and to a generally positive ethos in school and confidence on the part of staff. Classrooms are more tranquil now and we're dealing with our difficulties in-house far more." Millwood has made no permanent exclusions since establishing the Quiet Place, even though more than one in three pupils has special educational needs.
While a Quiet Place is not the answer for all children, significant change can be achieved in six weeks. Lynn McDowell, 31, has two children at Stockton Wood primary, the third Liverpool school with a Quiet Place. Her six-year-old daughter, who she describes as a worrier, developed a fear of going to school at the start of Year 2. "It was very bad," says Mrs McDowell. "She used to get hysterical." After starting the Quiet Place programme, there was a dramatic improvement. "It was like a miracle. Within a week, she was okay about coming. It's been such a confidence-builder for her, and she doesn't seem to let things worry her so much now."
Lynn McDowell also uses the Quiet Place, attending the free deep-relaxation sessions on offer to parents in the hour before school ends. They too respond to the dimly lit, softly furnished environment. "It's just a lovely feeling," she says. "All the stresses and worries of your life - you just forget them while you're in there." Fellow parent Janet Halewood, 32, who has one child at the school, is a regular attender at the sessions run by psychotherapist Fran Renwick. "Without this I'd crack up," she says. "It's as if all the pain is going out of my head right through my toes." Shirley Taylor, mother to nine sons, also attends the relaxation sessions. "I've noticed I've been a bit more relaxed at home," she says. "You don't realise you're all tied up in knots."
Although some of the activities make easy targets for those not in sympathy with the ethos - six weeks is not long enough to make much progress with deep-seated problems, and not everybody will want or be able to make the dietary and lifestyle changes suggested - the evidence so far is that it works.
Bob Spalding, senior lecturer in the department of education at Liverpool University, researched the progress of the first 22 children to go through the six-week intensive course at Millwood school. Using the Boxall profile developed by Marjorie Boxall, one of the founders of the nurture group movement, Bob Spalding measured the children's emotional growth and behavioural disturbance levels, and found Quiet Place children were four or five times better off than an equivalent control group where there had been no intervention. While different aspects of what's on offer reach different children, he says, "for some, it's just the room that does it. Because it's magical."
For more information on Quiet Place contact the Cheiron Project, Department of Education, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG. Tel: 0151 794 2490