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Helping victims of the system

The Shadow Education Minister sees how school behaviour support units make a difference but argues for fresh thinking

When you think of pupils that have problems - real problems caused by self-doubt, lack of ambition and grinding poverty - your thoughts do not automatically turn to the many douce wee towns of Scotland.

Nor should they and it is therefore greatly to the credit of a good school in such a douce wee town - Kirkcudbright Academy - that its management team cares enough to ensure that at whatever small level they do exist, they will be helped and if possible overcome in an innovative way which is resourced by the Executive's "Alternatives to Exclusion Fund" in one of its more practical guises.

None the less it is a little surprising to be sitting discussing low self-esteem, school phobia and targets for exclusion in a pleasant office in a fine sandstone building among acres of neatly manicured grass at the heart of a town renowned in Scotland for its artistic colony, its scallops and its creamery.

The school also has personal connections, for my parents moved to this gem of a place so that my father could finish his teaching career here. I have visited already today the site of the hut in which he taught for the best part of 10 years and I have been introduced to a few remaining colleagues.

One of them, John Boyd, was head of physical education at that time. Now he has taken on the challenge of heading up a new department called behaviour support, which sits alongside guidance and learning support in the structure of a number of schools in Dumfries and Galloway. It exists, John tells me in that enthusiastic but hard-headed manner that is common to the best PE teachers, to help the increasing (though here still small) number of pupils who simply reject school and who demonstrate that rejection to every teacher they can.

To familiarise me with the issues, John gives me the brief version of his PowerPoint presentation which has introduced the idea of behaviour support to teachers and parents in Kirkcudbright in recent months. There is much about flexible curricula and some interesting information about the technical schools in Germany which provide vocational courses for 14-and 15-year-olds with no stigma attached. He outlines the benefits of personal learning plans and the difficulties of introducing them in any school (they are not introduced here yet).

We debate, between the diagrams, the merits of relevant course design, the methods by which teachers can overcome their feeling of powerlessness in certain classroom situations and how they can develop strategies for dealing with disruptive behaviour.

The bell indicates that our reflection on the big issues is over and we must now tackle the reality. John's first task of the day is to lead a session of circle time for what he calls his "positive attitude group".

Can't be difficult, I think to myself.

After 30 minutes I am wrung out. John never stops helping, challenging and - most importantly of all - listening. Many psychiatrists would not work half as hard as he probes assertions, steers conversations and brings the silent ones out into a world where they have to think about what they have done and why.

I am at my most astonished when John reveals, bit by bit, that it is a deep sense of inadequacy and almost self-loathing that is at the root of some of the problems he is here to help solve. Confronted with a world in which style usually takes precedence over substance, it is little wonder that at least a few young people become maelstroms of emotion, largely centred on a perceived self-image which is as negative and unattractive as you can get.

Years of being put down at home, sometimes coupled with years of being put down in class (strategies to survive, alas, from those who should know better) can leave certain kids with hardly a shred of confidence. And while one strategy is to cower in the corner, another is to turn this self-dislike into a weapon, as a means, most probably, of externally validating that feeling of worthlessness.

Half an hour twice a week seems a small amount of time to make any difference, but John assures me that, little by little, the group is making progress. He admits to it being an exhausting process but he is very confident that it is one which works.

John now has to see a boy who has to have his jotter marked at every period by someone who has seen him and confirmed that he is (a) in school and (b) not hitting anyone. Paying attention and learning would be a bonus.

For him school is a drag, in his own words "a waste o' time", and he is counting the days until he can leave. Boredom and high spirits (though not an excuse) mean that he can't contain himself until departure and hence the problem. A vocational route would appeal more - he is going to work on a farm - but such a route is not open at the moment.

Education is meant to be a liberation but for some young people it can become a straitjacket. Education is meant to be enjoyable but for some pupils it can become a burden, even in a sympathetic and achieving school like this. Education is meant to be for all but as a nation we tend to design and resource it only for the common denominator.

Teachers like John - and there are many as committed - do their best in unequal circumstances. Their best is sometimes enough to save the victims of our system as well as enable those who thrive on it. But when it comes to a choice, the system still can only really cope with the latter group.

The former have to sink, yet in our more egalitarian world they now do not go silently into that educational night. They rage and in raging they can make the whole system shudder.

I am in no doubt that every school contains the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know and that most schools hold far more than Kirkcudbright Academy. But in addition to that inevitable crop, today there are just more and more who simply are failing and who can blame them for drawing attention to that fact? Add in the muddle-headed lack of leadership from Government - though there is much leadership in schools - and it is no wonder that so much needs to be done.

Behaviour support makes a start but it is a sticking plaster rather than a solution. The solution lies in fresh thinking about education coupled with the resources and support to enable those in education to do the job they do best: opening up minds and freeing potential for the future. In Kirkcudbright Academy, John and his talented colleagues in every department - for behaviour support is not an island - have those aims in sight.

Next week: Brian Miller, headteacher of Dalziel High, Motherwell

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