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Oakbank turns the corner

Aberdeen's troubled residential school is looking forward to a clean bill of health at its next inspection, reports Kay Smith

LESS THAN a year ago many were predicting a "closed" sign at the entrance to Oakbank, the controversial independent residential school in Aberdeen for teenagers with emotional and behaviourial problems.

A series of critical reports in the early nineties from the community care inspection unit in the former Grampian Region had been followed by allegations of irresponsible and at times brutal behaviour by staff. Inspectors repeatedly drew attention to continuing and unresolved failures in Oakbank's educational provision.

Now the tide appears to have turned. For several years Oakbank has moved steadily towards satisfying the inspection unit, now run by Aberdeen Council. A new principal, Jane Arrowsmith, has been in post for a year this month.

Barely six months after her appointment the school had its third inspection since 1995. Mrs Arrowsmith was commended for bringing a "renewed sense of purpose and direction" and for at last addressing some of the inspectors' concerns.

She has brought the school in line with official policy on "the balanced curriculum" by introducing social and aesthetic subjects and home economics into a timetable otherwise heavily laden with the three Rs and joinery.

The staff ratio is a teacher for every five pupils but children are encouraged to learn "independently", Mrs Arrowsmith says. Team teaching and learning support are in evidence, and the principal has also addressed inspectors' concerns by strengthening the system of tutoring.

There will also be closer links between education and social work staff. And psychoanalytical group therapy has been introduced, on a voluntary basis.

"Through our shared knowledge and expertise we have tried to come up with a balanced curriculum and a range of strategies to meet the needs of our young people," Mrs Arrowsmith says.

Originally from Merseyside, the 35-year-old mother of four has an impressive array of academic qualifications and teaching and management experience in special education in Scotland. She sees herself as managing through consensus and consultation, and staff agree with her approach. They make use of the "open door" philosophy she shares with Jim Ritchie, her depute and the head of education. They also testify to Oakbank's "renewed sense of purpose" and in particular to its becoming more "child centred".

Pupils are almost invariably from broken homes and have been emotionally damaged in childhood. Truanting, substance abuse and multiple brushes with the law are common. Oakbank is working hard to break a cycle in which anti-social, self-destructive props are used to cover for a loss of confidence and self-esteem.

Both behaviour and academic achievement are as far as possible managed positively. Every success counts, no matter how small. Sometimes the successes are tangible. One teacher, Karen Gebbie, has been preparing pupils for the first time for Standard grade art, with good results not only artistically but in written work.

Ms Gebbie says pupils must be reminded of their achievements. "There is no one out there to do that for them. At their last school the only message they would have got is 'you are rubbish'."

Not everything yet goes smoothly at Oakbank. The inspectors are still calling for a reduction in "disruptive behaviour" and "sexual swear-words" by the time of their next visit. But the school is already offering a package that pupils feel is benefiting them. Derek, aged 15, admits in the past to heavy drinking and getting into trouble with the police for carrying offensive weapons. He says he leads a quieter life now away from school and adds that he gets "a lot of help from the teachers".

One measure of how well pupils settle in is whether they take advantage of the many open doors to abscond. Malcolm, also 15, says he never feels the desire to run away. He expects to collect a number of Standard grades. "My mum thinks it's great, before I would never go to school."

Since local government reorganisation two years ago Oakbank has had a new board of governors, mostly councillors. Mrs Arrowsmith talks enthusiastically of the "healthy climate" between her and the board and of its agreement to raise fees substantially to Pounds 1,100 a week from April. "I am looking at providing a quality service and I am not prepared to do it on the cheap, " she says firmly.

Aberdeen social work department, Oakbank's biggest customer, acknowledges improvements have been made but has yet to increase the budget for placements. A fall in numbers is inevitable. Mrs Arrowsmith is busily marketing Oakbank to other social work directors. Interest has already been renewed, she says, among some who had become disaffected by the standard of service formerly provided.

Progress will not stop, she promises. Training and supervision of teaching and care staff are still being improved and the appointment of a new senior management team has been completed, with a new head of social work recently in post.

The inspectors are due back later this year. "I'm looking forward to them coming," Mrs Arrowsmith says.

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