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A more positive way to screen truants

Many schools have used government high-tech anti-truancy grants to monitor their students, some with computerised registration systems that stop just short of electronic tagging. But a Tyneside school is using IT to make its premises the place no streetwise youngster will want to leave - with a suite of state-of-the-art computers for activities ranging from multimedia to surfing the Internet.

Burnside Community High School in Wallsend, North Tyneside, has invested #163;45,000 of Grants for Education Support and Training funding earmarked for combating truancy in a new learning resources centre. Housed in part of the library, it has 10 Apple computers from Xemplar, with CD-Rom and Internet access and a laser printer. And the centre's welcoming atmosphere, in what is a fairly typical inner-city 13-18 school with 900 students, has made it an instant success.

The centre was inspired by the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow project, one of the longest running and successful investigations into how a technology-rich environment can help learning. The deputy head, Margaret Ferrie, who initiated the pilot project, says, "We are trying to create an alternative working environmen t which offers a supportive atmosphere and structured programme of work. "

The centre is available for use by all students but it has already been put to good use by seven of the school's most vulnerable students - two of them use it as their form room and main teaching base. The other five spend about half the week in mainstream lessons. Like any other inner-city school, Burnside has its share of young people with problems. And, as any teacher knows, they don't leave those problems outside the school gates.

Margaret Ferrie believes such children need a radical solution to tackle their apparent boredom with school and their desperate need to learn. So the centre plays a big part in the school life of the disaffected youngsters. Since the pilot started last term, Ms Ferrie and another senior teacher have supervised the group of seven, acting as their form tutor, taking the register and supervising their timetables. The arrangement changes next term when a full-time, permanent teacher is appointed as centre manager.

The seven students get access to their own workstations, are taught word processing and IT and are studying five GCSE courses including English, maths and science. The work is set by subject teachers but supervised in the centre. "We have worked with the students to choose subjects they have a realistic chance of gaining a qualification in," says Ms Ferrie.

But technology is not seen as the only answer. As Ms Ferrie says, "An unrelenting diet of computer would be appalling." Counselling is seen as another element of their special curriculum, with local professionals from Phoenix House, a rehabilitation charity, helping. "The counselling forms an integral part of the extra support to encourage them [the children] to come to school," says Ms Ferrie.

She agrees there is a danger that the centre could represent, to some people, privileged treatment for troublemake rs and that some students could see it as unfair - a luxurious sin-bin for disruptive children. "We have to get away from the idea that they have been rewarded for being naughty. It has been easier for others to understand this is not the case as more and more other students use the centre."

The centre is open from 8am until 5.45pm and is always fully staffed. All students are allowed to do their homework there, and to research projects or take part in after-school Internet training sessions.

The seven students based there, however, certainly don't feel privileged. Alan, 15, and Nicola and Dean, both 14, say the staff are very strict and they know they are "on probation". They claim staff always have a beady eye on them. They have different dinner and break times from the rest of the school, and some have elected to spend some of their lunchtime in the centre to keep out of trouble. When they attend mainstream classes their teacher will enter any misdemeanour in their personal attendance book.

Nicola admits to having "missed a lot of school", but since she was introduced to the centre she hasn't missed a day. Alan loves it: "Here I have been able to learn how to use a keyboard and do graphics, things I didn't used to have a chance to do."

Alan missed most of his past two year's schooling, either through truancy or because of the time he spent in a young offenders' institute. Since he started at the centre he has not missed a day except for two weeks after he broke his leg playing football.

The strategy is obviously effective for Nicola and Alan, but is it working for the rest of the school? Burnside used to have a high number of students temporarily excluded. Since the centre was opened in September there have been no suspensions and just one expulsion - a girl who had been expelled from her previous school and continued to display particulary violent behaviour that Burnside felt it couldn't deal with. The atmosphere is much calmer this term, says Ms Ferrie. Five students were expelled in the previous academic year.

One would expect the school to claim success but outside experts will be used to evaluate progress. Local authority inspectors will visit the school.

"We hope to challenge disaffection and be challenged by it, and in responding to that we are seeking to transform our practice and make the technology as integral to the teacher's role as the blackboard used to be," says Ms Ferrie.

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