'A very important and special place'

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Leith Academy's alternative education centre, which opened two years ago, is a comfortable, well-equipped room near the guidance department.

It has two full-time staff - Robbie Huxtable, a youth worker, and Janice Donaldson, an alternative education teacher who has 14 years of behaviour support experience - and two part-time teachers. Robbie and Janice are on first name terms with the pupils referred to the centre and their parents, so the pupils do not distinguish between the teacher and the youth worker.

"Coming to work in a school environment was daunting," says Robbie. "I had to find a way of balancing my relationships with the young people, the teachers and the parents.

"Now staff come to tell us about pupils' problems, which helps to build a good relationship. We also go into classrooms to help pupils with things like anger management," he says.

Currently, 45 pupils from the roll of 920 attend the centre. Each is allocated a key worker, who makes contact with their parents or carers and suggests a home visit.

"The visit is crucial because it changes the nature of the relationship with the young person if you've been in their house, drunk tea with their parents and been invited to see their rooms," says Janice.

"You also have to remember that a lot of these parents might themselves have had a bad experience of school and you have to build trust."

Each pupil is set an individual education programme and the key worker and pupil together fix three achievable targets, which are monitored daily by means of a target sheet, which allows mainstream staff and parentscarers to comment on any progress. The work takes place on a one-to-one basis for up to three three-hour sessions a week, in the centre, the child's home or any other suitable venue, such as a local youth centre, to engage the pupil.

"We use videos and games and take them out to places I any which way to build up trust," says Janice.

"All these strategies open up issues. Discussing one problem often gives rise to another.

"And these young people can have deep issues: violence, drugs, bereavement and so on. Some of it can be quite horrendous."

Janice and Robbie give each other support and supervision, as well as receiving it from their line manager, George Hanson, who is a principal teacher of guidance and a year head. These one-hour sessions every few weeks are common practice in social work and help to prevent burn out, and they believe it is a practice teaching staff everywhere should adopt.

The pupils' targets are discussed and reviewed weekly. Further meetings and reviews are held with the parentscarers and any other agencies involved, both in the home and the centre.

There is no limit for a pupil's attendance at the centre. "We work with them for as long as it takes," says Janice. "Focusing on primary to secondary transition and S1S2 means strategies are in place from day one of their secondary school careers, but we can't just abandon pupils in S4."

James (an alias) left Leith Academy at Christmas and is now doing an apprentice mechanic course. He was a pupil at the alternative education centre. Last June he wrote the following essay.

"A place that has become important and special to me is the centre with my key workers. It is a good place to go to. They help me when I am in trouble. If I am not getting on with the teacher, sometimes they come to my class and take me away before I get into more trouble.

"When I am in the centre and I have had trouble in one of my classes over the week, they talk to me about it and they tell me what I should do.

"They go to all the meetings about me and help me by arguing for me. I don't know how many times they have saved me from being excluded. I think if I didn't have the centre I would not last a week at this school.

"The centre is a very good place for me to be in. When I first went I hated it. I didn't like my key workers because I thought they where (sic) just annoying me but then I started liking it because I realised how much trouble they saved me from getting in.

"Now the centre has become very important and special to me. They are nice to me when I am angry. They talk to me and tell me what I should do or, if I am annoyed at one of the teachers and I walk out, they come and get me and take me down to the centre and talk me through it.

"That's why the centre is very important and special to me."

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