All points of the compass

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Support services for pupils at risk of exclusion are converging in a new type of centre. Martin Whittaker reports.

The building doesn't look much from outside - a three-storey, red-brick office block on a Dorset industrial estate. But when it opens in October, this refurbished block will be home to a new type of education support centre that aims to cut school exclusions and prevent young people from dropping out of learning.

Its atmosphere will be more corporate than educational. There will be classrooms but they will have carpets, office furniture and brightly coloured walls. It will have conference and training facilities for the wide range of professionals working there, including teachers, educational psychologists, social workers and behaviour support specialists.

By being separate from the area's schools, the centre will aim to serve all of them equally while providing another environment for students.

This centre is called the Compass, and has been developed by a partnership of schools in Weymouth and Portland with the backing of Dorset education authority, which hopes to replicate the centre across the county, and sees it as a potential blueprint for education support nationally.

"The Compass team will provide fast, effective support and provision to learners and schools as need arises, as well as for those with an already identified need," said a partnership spokesman.

Key to the centre's development is the way the area's schools now work together. Local heads recall that until the late 1990s their schools were in competition. In some cases they were even hostile to one another.

But all that has changed. Eighteen months ago Weymouth and Portland's schools and one further education college signed up to the Chesil Education Partnership, a collaboration built on the existing pyramid groups of schools.

The partnership is managed by the schools themselves, and run by a small team of staff in a former school caretakers' lodge in Weymouth.

This may appear to be low-key, but the effects of the collaboration are striking. This year, for the first time, the partnership has decided to kick against league tables by publishing aggregate GCSE and A-level results rather than for individual schools. It also organises an annual "primary college" - all the area's 800 Year 6 pupils spend a week in July on a range of activities at the local FE provider, Weymouth college.

A third of the area's students now do a vocationally-based curriculum at key stage 4, and the partnership aims to allow pupils in Year 9 make their option choices from other schools.

To understand how the Chesil partnership came about, you first have to look at the area itself.

Weymouth and Portland are geographically isolated, with sea on two sides and hills on the other.

Dorset's schools were also among the most poorly funded in the country.

"The partnership came together because it gave schools a much stronger voice," says Gary Fooks, development manager for the partnership.

"We're in a limited geographical area with a limited number of kids on roll. What's the point of being in competition? Let's work together for the greater good of all."

The idea for the Compass centre began two years ago with Every Child Matters legislation and the joining-up of children's services on the horizon.

Behind their coastal beauty, Weymouth and Portland have some of the poorest housing estates in Dorset. The Royal Navy used to be a big local employer, and when it closed its bases in Portland in the mid-1990s thousands of jobs were lost. The area also has three prisons, and less than a fifth of households bring in more than pound;25,000 a year.

Existing education support was also inadequate. It took too long to refer children to the relevant support, and the nearest pupil referral unit was in Dorchester, so a child from Portland faced a 12-mile trip by taxi.

"There were kids slipping through the net or being bounced from school to school," says Mr Fooks. "It wasn't really working for them."

The partnership is careful not to brand Compass as a centre for failing pupils, and prefers to call it "a full inclusion and assessment centre".

Dorset LEA has devolved the management of services - such as educational psychology, welfare and behaviour support - directly to the partnership to enable a faster response to schools' needs.

Other agencies, including social and mental health services, will also work with the centre. Its aim will be to get children back into learning and look at alternatives to the school curriculum if need be.

Putting multi-disciplinary teams in a business setting rather than in a school is deliberate. It takes young people into a more adult environment so they will respond differently from the way they would in school.

"There's a lot of good provision in our schools, but you do need to have that time out of the school environment," says Mr Fooks. "We have 28 schools - you couldn't really split up the specialist multi-agency team into 28 parts."

The old referral system was a linear process in which a pupil would be referred to, say, an educational psychologist before it was decided that behaviour support was needed.

A good deal of the centre's work will be proactive, liaising with schools to catch children before they come off the rails.

David Pratten, head of Dorset's children out-of-school service,says the new centre will cut unnecessary bureaucratic delay in getting support.

"If you meet the need that much quicker, it prevents it being a greater need further down the line," he says. "We have seen that so often with individual children.

"For a lot of the young people who will access the Compass, the normal school environment hasn't worked for them and it's often a barrier to their learning.

"It's called the Compass because we talk in terms of new directions in learning.

"We're not going to try to reproduce the school. We will try to meet very specific needs by using customised curriculum and customised provision."

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