A safe harbour for lost souls

7th January 2005 at 00:00
A primary head welcomes excluded teenagers back to their old school as classroom helpers. Phil Revell reports.

An inner-city primary is running an informal sanctuary for children excluded from north London secondary schools. In what may be a unique exercise in surrogate parenting, Islington's Duncombe primary school takes back its ex-pupils if they are excluded.

"It's usually about a week or ten days," says Duncombe's headteacher Barrie O'Shea of the usual length of stay. However, one girl who returned stayed for three years.

It began when Mr O'Shea noticed teenagers hanging around outside his school. Usually they were waiting to collect younger brothers or sisters, but sometimes they would appear mid-morning and simply loiter beyond the school gates.

"I asked them what had happened and discovered that they had been excluded," says Mr O'Shea.

He was not happy to see his ex-pupils - often teenage girls - wandering the streets of north London. "I'd ring their parents and say that we'd love them to come into school as a learning assistant for the period of the exclusion, rather than them being at home or on the streets," he recalled.

"I did that without reference to the secondary schools, I just did it. I don't want my ex-pupils - and I do see them as mine - walking around on these streets," he said.

In theory these teenagers ought to be in local authority pupil referral units, at home with a tutor, or transferred to another secondary. In practice it seems that many are in limbo, having fallen between the cracks of the services set up to protect them. Mr O'Shea offers the same refuge to children who leave Duncombe without a place at a suitable school.

"If there is an issue about a place for a child, we take them back, especially special-needs children," says Mr O'Shea.

Rhea Murray is 16 and cheerfully admits that she was a problem at secondary school. "I didn't get on with some of the teachers. I was bunking off from Year 7."

In Year 9, Rhea was assaulted by a group of boys and refused to return to school. Mr O'Shea saw her outside Duncombe and invited her to come in as a classroom helper.

"It was a bit weird to come back to my old primary school. I worked with Year 1 and 2 and I loved the children. I was coming every day. I was trying to get back into secondary school, but it never worked out," she says.

Mr O'Shea is clear that he is not educating these young people. There's no curriculum for them at Duncombe. What he is offering is a place of safety and a route back.

"Rhea was my responsibility," he says "She was getting no support from anywhere else."

Islington points out that students on short-term exclusions are the responsibility of their parents for the time they are not in school. The LEA welcomes Mr O'Shea's work with families in this area. "Working with younger children may have real benefits for these students," said a spokesman. The longer-term placements are more of an issue, and the LEA accepts that more should have been done to find a solution to Rhea's problems.

While at Duncombe the teenagers assist in the classroom,usually working with a full-time learning support assistant assigned to a particular pupil.

There are lots of volunteers: Barrie O'Shea's policy is to welcome any help with open arms.

"We have 70 to 80 volunteers coming into the school in any week. They need to feel valued when they walk in the door. We have clear things for them to do."

Some are parents, others are university students, others simply have time to give. The excluded former pupils join this eclectic group and are expected to meet the same high standards.

"I tell them that they are role models," says Mr O'Shea.

It would be inaccurate to say that Duncombe needs all the help it can get.

Its school results compare well with other inner-city primaries and the last Ofsted report was positive. But this is a challenging environment.

Nearly two-thirds of the pupils are entitled to free school meals. There are 56 nationalities and English is the second language for 70 per cent of the children. Out of 400 pupils, 120 children are on the special-needs register.

Mr O'Shea is relentlessly positive about all this. Where others see challenge, he sees diversity.

"Some of our children speak three languages," he says. "How many eight-year-olds can you say that about?"

He's been at the school for 15 years. He came to shut it down when it was universally acclaimed as the worst school in north London. Aiming simply to keep a lid on the problems until the closure date, he established a firm reputation with parents as someone who would involve himself in their lives. At the end of term the parents went to the school with a petition, asking him to stay on and keep the school open. To his surprise, Islington agreed.

His governors offer wholehearted support.

"We are really keen that Barry carries on with this," said Lucy Garratt, a governor for six years. "Children need somewhere safe. If we said no to these kids, what would happen to them?"

And Rhea? She is at FE college, following a course that Barry O'Shea helped to organise.

"This was a godsend.Things could have gone really wrong for me," she says.

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