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Room to grow

Troubled children are given every chance of success at one Plymouth primary, where a bold inclusion scheme is set to be recognised with a pound;100,000 boost from government funds, reports Wendy Wallace.

The day starts badly for Marcus, with a fight in the playground that ends with him running out of school before he's even got through the doors. The head goes after him and brings him back; classroom assistants talk to him privately and now, just after 9am, he's part of the circle on the carpet in the key stage 2 nurture group, being praised for his homework. "This looks to me as if you've done it all by yourself," says Steve Soames, ponytailed special needs co-ordinator and advanced skills teacher. Marcus's day looks set to be rescued.

Marcus is one of 12 children in the group at Marlborough primary school, Devonport, Plymouth. They are the kind of children who, anywhere else, would probably spend most of their school lives standing in corridors or outside the head's office. But Marlborough has spent the past 10 years making sure that children such as Marcus feel valued and can give schooling their best shot. And, thanks to a government scheme that aims to benefit severely deprived areas such as Devonport, the school is preparing to expand its nurturing programme.

Connecting government rhetoric with the reality of people's lives sometimes seems difficult. But in Marlborough primary, the effects of the pound;2 billion, 10-year New Deal for Communities (NDC) are slowly being realised. Devonport is one of around 40 deprived districts selected last year for New Deal funding in an attempt to tackle social exclusion.

The town grew up around the naval dockyard, with its barbed wire-topped walls that continue to dominate the area. But, behind the wall, the dockyard is now quiet. Fifty years ago, it employed 20,000 people; now only 100 locals are numbered among the 4,000 workers.

The dereliction within is mirrored without. From the prevalence of asthma to the scarcity of home ownership, from the high rate of school absence to the low voting turnout, every indicator sketches the disadvantage faced by children who begin their lives here.

At Marlborough, they're already doing some of what is needed, paid for out of the school budget, with the nurture group - a full-time class targeting children with a variety of special needs in Years 3, 4 and 5. "Life = love plus art" is the message written on the back of the classroom door, and anyone who has ever wondered what an advanced skills teacher does might spend some time watching Mr Soames.

His pupils - nine are present today, one seems to have disappeared after a parental suicide bid over Christmas and two are off sick - are sitting round a dish of pears he calls "live fruit". (The meaning of this phrase becomes clear later, when you see the vegetables served for lunch.) The children introduce themselves one by one, Aaron stumbling over his recently changed surname, Tiffany bringing her eyes up fleetingly from the ground.

They are praised for remembering their glasses, for "good sitting" and "good listening". Slight and insubstantial, they look like birds; their pale, luminous faces looming out of the wintry light, their desire to please the big, gentle man who sits among them obvious.

Mr Soames plays Vivaldi to speed them through their work, speaks to them calmly, creating, minute by minute, the possibility of a positive connection with life. Their histories, he says, "would make you weep". Three-quarters of the children in the nurture group have sight or hearing problems. All have emotional and behavioural problems andor learning difficulties of one sort or another. "They are children who in another day and age would have been in a special school," says Mr Soames, who has been at Marlborough for 11 years. "Some of the children come from very damaged and damaging backgrounds."

Children usually stay in the class for at least a year, and often longer, but all return to mainstream classes in Year 6. Mr Soames discounts any idea that inclusion in the group is stigmatising. Rather, he says that in a community where so many children have pressing needs, the class is seen as an opportunity, and a source of envy for the other children.

It is a measure of Marlborough's success in holding on to troubled children that they have made only one permanent exclusion in the past decade, a boy who has since been turned away by a series of residential units.

This group has been running for 10 years. Now, NDC money will allow Marlborough to expand and boost the programme. A successful bid for pound;100,000-plus over two years will pay for a key stage 1 group to be launched after this half-term. The new group will be funded "properly", he says. "I was told to go away and dream, 'What would you want for the ideal nurture group?' So I did. And it was funded. Which is as it should be if we're really going to look at the barriers children face to learning." There is money for educational psychologists, drama and speech and language therapists, and refurbishment of a room with a sink and a cooker. Teacher Julie France and classroom assistant (and local resident) Janet Smith will staff the group, which will accommodate eight children.

Central government is investing pound;50 million in this neighbourhood over the next 10 years. But with the money comes another kind of new deal. Local people - with community and voluntary organisations, public agencies, local authorities and businesses - must decide what is needed and how it should be spent. This process of local consultation is known in New Deal speak as "project cycle management". But few of the disillusioned and hard-pressed residents of Devonport, many of them single mothers or heavily involved with drugs, are schooled in community activism.

Steve Soames has a new part-time unpaid role as community organiser. "At the heart of New Deal is the belief that no one in an office can find the solution for a local community," he says. "You have to engage the people who are living there." He puts in an extra four or five hours a week, he estimates, "writing things, engaging with staff, meeting parents".

He says:"Not only are we working in challenging circumstances, delivering the curriculum, acting as advocates for children - now we're involved in community regeneration."

Through the smeary windows of Marlborough - built 100 years ago as a hospital and now functioning partly as a place of education, partly as a healing station - you can see the sea, in the form of the Tamar estuary, and beyond that Cornwall. The building has an embattled, windswept feel; the walls are so thick, engineers had trouble getting in the cables for the school intranet.

The 180 children enrolled here are a prime target of the regeneration drive; raising educational achievement is always a New Deal aim. Optimistic targets - that rather than lagging behind national and city SATs averages they should exceed them - are part of the NDC plan, showily named "Devonport People's Dreams". Schools are central in turning those dreams into reality.

Previous schemes have promised much but delivered little - pound;1 million of central government funding spent on this school in 2000, for instance, saw its tower (from which staff and pupils were once able to watch Britannia gliding along the estuary) demolished to reduce surplus capacity, but made no visible improvement inside and has resulted in a shortage of space for meetings, one-to-one work and extra-curricular activities.

Still, the influx of funds has brought an air of optimism. The New Deal process disperses small amounts of "encouragement" money in the first few months; at Marlborough, every child has had a book bag packed with pens, pencils, a dictionary and art materials. Headteacher Jack Griffiths says the NDC allows them to think bigger. "There'll be an avenue for us to follow bold initiatives," he says, sketching a vision of a community sports hall to enhance school facilities and tackle the shortage of local amenities. Already, he says - citing the presence of Iceland on the high street and the disappearance of the shop selling yesterday's bread - things are better than when he arrived in Devonport, 15 years ago. "What doesn't change in this area is schools. They're here, doing a job."

On the day of the TES visit, the NDC "education focus group" meets in neighbouring Mount Wise primary school, another one of four schools in the NDC target area. Three parents (the elusive "stakeholders") are present, along with several teachers and a representative from the NDC office, among others. They fall to discussing how children entering school at 50 per cent below the Plymouth average baseline can be brought up to above average attainment.

For 27-year-old Kelly Linford, mother of three children, two of them at Marlborough, sitting around a table with the professionals is a new experience. "At first, it was quite formal and over my head," she says. "But you get to have your say, which makes a change. They should ask the people more. But a lot of us haven't got time for meetings."

The clash of cultures is obvious. Minutes from the previous meeting note that: "Kelly Linford stated that many of the residents feel intimidated by attending the meetings; also the abbreviations on the minutes are difficult to understand." The meeting agrees that Marlborough foundation stage teacher Becky Trafford (another one with advanced skills) will accompany Ms Linford to the cafe where some mothers gather after dropping off their children, to canvass further views. Halting and difficult though the New Deal processes may be, they seem necessary.

Steve Soames is optimistic about the future. He's involved parents and his nurture group children in an anti-vandalism drive (after a five-year-old and an eight-year-old set fire to the nursery one Sunday morning, causing pound;30,000 of damage); parents are fully behind the new nurture group and talking increasingly about school improvement. "This is an exciting time to be working in an area that had effectively been assigned to the scrapheap," he says.

Children's names and details have been changed

CULTIVATING SUCCESS

Sara, on the way to the garden training centre, sketches a vivid picture of life at home. "My brother died and my auntie, she took the wrong sort of pills. I've got three sisters and five brothers, I'm living with my foster parents because my parents were arguing and my mum got a big scratch on her neck. The dog fell down the stairs and made a noise like this. Then it bit my arse. I like the word arse. Is it rude?"

Steve Soames takes the nurture group children to Devonport Park training centre (set up for adults with learning difficulties) one afternoon a week, walking in a straggly line with the assistants along the high street, past the cafe ("Do not ask for variations. The breakfasts are as seen"), up past the flats and throughthe park.

Not one of these children has a garden at home but, under the watchful eye of the centre's manager, Dave Stanton, they're working on various projects in their own patch at the centre, digging a pond, potting on plants. The boys are in their element, bundling wheelbarrows through the mud, attacking the ground with spades, lifting rocks. "Sir! Guess what? I had a dream last night I was at this garden centre digging up this pond and I found massive treasure."

"This whole move in secondary schools towards NVQs - why can't that be happening in primary schools?" says Mr Soames, watching Sonny struggle to clean the mud off his spade under the tap, with a stiff brush. "If you went to Steiner schools or Montessori schools they'd be doing real things."

"Lobster," shrieks Sara as a woodlouse falls from a pot in the polytunnel.

A day, which for Darren began with a fight, ends with an afternoon's digging and a big biscuit made the day before in school, eaten with muddy-handed contentment in the training centre cafe.

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