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Messing with the bad boys

An ambitious approach to combatting disaffection was piloted last April at Cumberland School, in the London Borough of Newham. But to headteacher Jane Noble, who came to the school two years ago, ambitious approaches were in order.

An arson attack destroyed one third of the building in June 1994. The culprit has never been found. Noble, by her own admission, "loathes exclusions. In the end, it means sending out children who, if we had the resources, we could work with in the school. It's the last resort." So she and her staff, in consultation with educational psychologists and the behaviour team from Newham education authority developed Project 8, a pilot aimed at 10 "very challenging" boys in Year 8

All the boys but one were white, with a wide range of abilities, but they all shared verbal aggression, minimal concentration levels and, incongruously perhaps, a stated wish to remain in school rather than be excluded. Sandra Readman, special needs coordinator, describes them as being "like hyperactive toddlers. They would leave the classroom for a few minutes and then come back and spread mayhem."

The school collaborated closely with the parents who met their son's head of year and members of the behaviour team and were told of the implications if the school didn't intervene. They were also briefed on their son's weekly targets, such as: "I will bring my equipment to school", or "I will be on time every day".

The Project 8 group spent about two-thirds of each school day in their own room, doing work carefully planned to follow the curriculum, supervised and supported by school and LEA staff. Explains Jane Noble: "It was all basic stuff. They each had their individual action plans and they were allowed to learn in an autonomous fashion. They also did regular self-assessments on their own behaviour."

A report on the project by Her Majesty's Inspectorate called it "a pragmatic approach to solving a problem", however the LEA's support became inconsistent at the beginning of this school year. "They thought we'd been too ambitious. The head of the behaviour support team said it was too intensive a programme, too wearing on the staff," says Noble who admits that "it was an expensive model, putting all the resources into 10 children."

She sees the pilot as having long-term benefits. Two boys have received statements of special educational need as a result and several others have developed "a greater sense of control over their behaviour".

They're not all success stories, however. One has been excluded and another has reverted to his original behaviour. In terms of what it has taught the staff, however, Project 8 will live on.

"This has given the staff strategies for dealing with children who act out and showed us how to follow procedures for the new Code of Practice," says Noble. "If we had the money, I'd like to explore it in much more depth. A lot of it is about small-group work and having the time to talk to children about their assessments and looking at their individual work. We have such a need. But the jam has to be spead so thinly."

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