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'I talk about my problems. They listen and help me '

When Rachel Clements started going to the learning support unit at Epsom and Ewell high school, she was on the brink of being permanently excluded.

In her own words, she was "mouthy" to teachers and had a poor attendance record. But after two months of guidance from committed learning mentors Rachel started going back into a few mainstream lessons. Now, two years later she even admits to enjoying some of her classes.

"I did not get on with any of my teachers at all," said 14-year-old Rachel.

"I kept getting kicked out of classes but when I came here they calmed me down.

"They told me I couldn't argue with teachers and made me realise I was doing myself more harm by being out of lessons. I was almost kicked out of school but then I changed.

"Sometimes I would be at home and just think I couldn't be bothered with school and teachers. Once I stopped shouting, I started seeing the teachers' point of view. I thought they were not so bad."

Rachel is just one of the success stories from the school's support unit or what they call their learning opportunity centre.

Now in its fifth year, it works with a higher proportion of the pupils than most schools and deals with a big variety of behavioural and emotional problems, many of which stem from problems at home.

Phil Hutchinson, the headteacher, said: "We currently have about 80 pupils on the books. Some other schools use these units as a last step before permanent exclusion. We use it only partly for that. Its job is to help any child with any problem that could affect achievement in school."

Pupils only rarely use the unit full-time, with many visiting it for time-tabled lessons once a week to deal with problems in both group and one-to-one sessions. Mr Hutchinson believes this is key to re-integrating pupils as quickly as possible to full-time mainstream lessons. He said:

"They remain in the mainstream system for as much as we can keep them there. This unit is a complementary medicine rather than a last chance saloon."

The school also arranges work experience for older children to vary their education.

Other pupils who use the unit are also full of praise. Rhys Beck, 14, said:

"I had been off school for quite a long time with illness and found it hard to get back into school. They helped me by taking it step by step. I still use it as a drop-in centre but apart from that I'm in normal lessons. It would be good if more schools had places like this."

Vicki Thresher, 15, said: "They have helped me with anger management. I can talk about any problems and they listen, which has been a big help."

None of the good work would have been achieved without the work of learning mentors Clare Haine and Andrea Thompson. They are not qualified teachers but have backgrounds in teenage youth work, which Mr Hutchinson believes makes them invaluable additions to the staff. They create a positive and welcoming atmosphere, which shows pupils that they care, he said.

Mrs Thompson said: "The pupils always know there will be support and time for them. We started working only with pupils who were at risk of exclusion but the unit has developed to anyone now who needs our help.

"We really don't know what's going to come through the door from day to day, it can be anything from something minor to major problems at home. We have to be flexible because what's right for one child, won't be right for another.

"Lots of the children pop back in from time to time, even when they are not being taught here. We are a comfort blanket in a way, but we can also offer an adult's perspective in addressing their problems."

Building good relationships with parents has also been important in the success of the unit.

Caroline Watling assistant head, who oversees the work in the unit, said:

"A number of parents have said this has helped their children stay on track. We have built good relationships and even offered advice and support to parents on how to improve their children's behaviour at home."

The staff work with other projects and agencies in Surrey, including a business partnership for organising work experience in construction and carpentry. Another pupil was given work experience at a beauty therapist's which led to a job.

All the teachers in the school are also given training and support from senior teachers in how to cope with children who are being disruptive in lessons.

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