A safe haven for the lost boys

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Ballikinrain, a residential school for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties, is supporting boys with a troubled past to build a better future. Douglas Blane reports

THE SINGLE-TRACK road to Ballikinrain rises steadily, past elegant lime trees and gnarled old pines to an impressive-looking country house with high stone battlements, tall turrets and its own ghost. Staff talk of the patter of feet across panelled floors and of glimpses of a little girl in a dress that has long since gone out of fashion.

There are no real girls at Ballikinrain, and pupils at the residential school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties are haunted by more than apparitions. "It's the experiences they've had that have made them the people they are," says Carol MacDonough, learning mentor. "With a different start in life they would have been different kids. These are not bad boys." But bad boys and girls is a label that tends to stick to the 1,000 or so Scottish children excluded from the mainstream and doing their time at residential schools such as Ballikinrain, in Stirling.

"Lost boys" would be a better description. Former teachers and classmates are usually glad of the comparative peace that descends when disruptive pupils are removed.

Meanwhile, residents drive past unaware of what is happening a mile beyond the old stone archway, with its ironic inscription audaciter boldly, courageously.

A corner of the curtain lifted last year when CrossReach, the social care arm of the Church of Scotland, which runs Ballikinrain, agreed to television cameras coming in for an extended period. The Boys of Ballikinrain, aired in February this year on BBC2, came as a shock to many viewers. Outbursts of violence, swearing and chat about drinking, smoking and taking drugs showed why the mainstream found the boys hard to handle.

The problem is a mismatch between the physical and emotional ages. Paul Gilroy, then head of education, said to camera: "Physically they have grown up and have got to the age of 11, 12, 13. But emotionally they are stuck at a much younger age."

Now acting head of school, Mr Gilroy and some of the staff and pupils at Ballikinrain have again agreed to talk to the outside world, although the boys from the TV documentary have moved on.

"We don't keep them here as long as we used to," Mr Gilroy told TES Scotland. "The optimum period, we find, is about 18 months to two years. It depends very much on the individual child. We wouldn't tell them it was time to go if we didn't feel they were ready."

For 30 of its 40 or so pupils, Ballikinrain is home as well as school, with the boys living in one of half a dozen units in the old building, each with a modern kitchen, play area, colourfully cushioned sofas, individual bedrooms and care staff who get to know them in some cases better than their parents.

Many of these boys have tragic or chaotic family backgrounds, with parents sick, missing or dead and adults coming and going who abuse whatever they get their hands on, whether it is drink, drugs or children.

"We give the boys a chance to be safe here, to have fun and to be kids again," says Mr Gilroy. "Most have missed out on that." More often than not they have also missed out on large chunks of their schooling. "It maybe hasn't been the most important thing in their lives because of all the other difficulties they have had."

Ballikinrain has small classes, with equal numbers of pupils and adults at times, and the ratio often not more than 2:1. This makes teaching easier but by no means effortless.

"Often they come to our attention because they haven't been attending school," says Mr Gilroy. "They've maybe had destructive learning experiences and aren't used to being in a classroom. Just because you tell them there's a low pupil to adult ratio, they won't necessarily feel comfortable in ours."

Poorly developed literacy or numeracy creates inadequacy, anxiety and panic. "A lot of them are in constant fight or flight," says John Fletcher, the principal teacher and head of primary. "They are traumatised because of the things they've experienced. They have serious emotional needs that we need to address. So we have to take it slowly. It's about teaching them how to get on ith each other. It's about listening to them. It's about teaching them empathy. We need to be very positive and we need to be patient.

"We work closely with a whole team of people care workers, social workers, psychologists. We have to realise that we're not just teachers to these kids. If we get all that right, the education will follow."

CrossReach first acquired Ballikinrain and turned the baronial castle into a school in 1968. Since then it has been an approved school, a List D school and now a residential school, the evolution in names reflecting a revolution in philosophy. Education is central to what Ballikinrain does now, rather than containment and damage limitation.

Pupils vary in age from eight to 14, with the majority at the moment being taught in Primary 6 to Secondary 1 classes. Mark (not his real name) came to Ballikinrain as one of about 10 day pupils. But when his mother died last year, it was no longer safe or practical for him to stay at home," says Mr Fletcher.

Mark, 12, wears a baseball cap and fidgets constantly. He makes eye contact rarely but he seems a bright lad and chats freely. "The other boys in the unit are annoying," he says. "I had a fight with one this morning. Practically all the rest of it here is good. My favourite subjects are ICT, business ed, HE and CDT." HE is home economics but what is CDT? "Tech," he translates tersely, as if everybody should know it means craft, design and technology.

"I want to be a car mechanic when I leave school. I like enterprise. We were making our own business and working out what we would need, how much it would cost, where it would be, what it would be called, who we would get to work for us. We did it all on the computer. That was good. It was all there for you in spreadsheets and stuff."

Mark says he feels more mature and gets into fewer fights now. "It's better here than at my last school," he says. "There they just gave us the work and said, 'Here, get on with it.' They didnae sit beside us and help us."

The boys took a trip to France as an end of summer term treat, but activities and experiential learning play a key role in their education all year. Sitting still and doing sums is harder for them than for most young boys.

Enterprise education is an established way to engage the pupils at Ballikinrain, while in recent years forest schools and eco-schools have offered further practical activities that teach skills and extend attention spans. The wide lawns and woodlands on the estate also offer plenty of opportunities to run around, play football or swing on trees.

Teachers see the cross-curricular flexibility of A Curriculum for Excellence as a godsend, says Mr Fletcher "because that's how we have been working for the past 30 years".

"Another breath of fresh air is an HMIE team set up to work with the residential sector," he says. "In the past, we were inspected against more or less mainstream criteria. But this new team is focused entirely on our sector. They are also forging links between residential schools, so we don't feel we are working on our own now."

Within Ballikinrain, teachers are supported by classroom assistants and learning mentors a promoted post for staff such as Carol MacDonough, who started five years ago without previous classroom experience but with plenty in offices and the home.

"I am passionate about this job," she says. "You can make a difference to these boys. We get training but mostly I use what I've learnt in my life, from my mum and my kids.

"You get to know the boys. You can look inside them and learn what makes them anxious. Gradually, you see things improving from when they first come here.

"A lot of them have had bereavements. So I'll maybe share the fact that so have I, tell them I know how they feel.

"Children are very perceptive. You've no idea the number of boys that are in tears when it's time to leave here. They can tell if people care about them."

Caring for children at a residential school is not something that stops at the end of the school day. By working shifts, Maria Callaghan and her care worker colleagues look after the boys right through the day.

"If we are on a late shift one day we'll be on an early the next," she says. "That's so the young people wake up to the same faces that put them to bed."

Teachers are assigned to units, which in turn are grouped together into learning communities, in which teaching staff, care workers and other specialists collaborate, with the intention of using everything that happens as a learning opportunity. "We teach them basic skills, life skills, in the units," says Ms Callaghan. "Things like tidying up, sitting down to meals, going to bed at a certain time, having a shower every day." It's a job people either love or hate, she explains.

"When the boys are in crisis, lashing out is often the only way they know to express their feelings," she says. "But you have to look beyond that. Maybe their family were supposed to visit and have let them down."

The level of difficulty in working with the boys depends on the type of activity being attempted. "It's maybe a bit easier for us than for the teachers because we get to have more fun with them," says Ms Callaghan.

"It must have been hard for the people making the TV programme, because the boys were playing to the camera most of the time. But it was very interesting for the staff at Ballikinrain. We got to hear what the boys really thought about us... I think."

* www.ballikinrain.org

* www.crossreach.org.uk

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