Pupils rejected by the mainstream are thriving at an independently run project with learning at its core, says Douglas Blane
Actors worry about being typecast, but when it happens to them they can walk away and seek out new roles. Youngsters stuck in a part that no longer appeals find it harder to escape.
"For years I was labelled a bad boy," says 15-year-old Scott Lennox. "That didn't happen when I came here."
Now a pupil at the Irvine site of Spark of Genius, Scott is currently waiting for the bus to take him and his classmates to PE lessons. Computers are central to learning and teaching at the independent school for children who can't handle mainstream - but you can't work up a sweat on a computer.
For virtually all other subjects, the computer is an ideal tool for getting youngsters struggling with mainstream education back on track, says Spark of Genius director Tom McGhee. "We first got into education through a European-funded project, in which we used advanced ICT to get youngsters with troubled school histories switched on to learning."
Education and computers formed such a potent blend, both for the youngsters and Mr McGhee, whose background includes English teaching and business ICT, that the company's educational mission soon squeezed out its commercial software and training activities. "It is hard enough to do one thing really well," says Mr McGhee.
HM Inspectors recently confirmed that Spark of Genius is meeting the educational needs of troubled youngsters really well. While praising the company's "innovative and effective use of ICT", they identified other key strengths that point to a philosophy far more profound than plonking kids down in front of computers and expecting them to turn into lifelong learners and model citizens.
But at first sight that is what seems to be happening at the school's centre in Irvine, located in a glass-walled, modern building in Riverside Business Park. With its piped Mozart, hushed atmosphere, open-plan layout and widely-space tables liberally sprinkled with black Dell desktops, this could easily be an ordinary office instead of a rather special school.
Having started out three and a half years ago at one site, the Abbey Learning Centre, in Paisley, Spark of Genius now occupies four other locations, in Paisley, Irvine, Dunoon and Drumchapel, Glasgow, and is still expanding.
Youngsters not coping with secondary school are referred to Spark by local authorities, which pay the school pound;415 a week, or pound;650 if the child needs a particularly high level of attention. Once pupil, parents and school staff are satisfied they can work together - which can take up to six weeks - targets are agreed with the pupils, who are then aimed at exams from Access 3 up to Higher.
The five centres currently teach a total of 109 pupils, over 80 per cent of them boys, who display a range of problem behaviours, including being disruptive, withdrawn, socially immature and attention-seeking. Young people with Asperger syndrome are also considered.
Asked about the difference from mainstream, pupils confirm Mr McGhee's assertion that Spark of Genius is not about "throwing computers into a room and expecting kids to magically learn - or behave". Young Scott has done far more work since coming to the Irvine centre than he ever did at mainstream school, he says. "I like the small groups and one-to-one teaching. It means I don't have to be the class clown all the time. I settled in quickly because the teachers talked to me right away."
The youngsters love the computers each of them uses to access lessons and resources on subjects from maths, English, modern studies, social subjects and core skills to information and communications technology, personal and social education and religious and moral education. "We do a subject for 45 minutes then move on to the next one on the timetable," explains Adam Lawrence, 15. "It starts you with a wee quiz to see what you know, then you read through the information and do the activities."
But they value even more highly a feature of Spark that has nothing to do with technology. "You get through a lot of work here, but you still have a wee laugh with the teachers," Adam says.
"I was put out of my old school because of bad behaviour. I had all my pals there to show off to. My first day here I was nervous and quite lonely. But the teachers talked to me and introduced me to the other boys.
"You get on with teachers here much better than in a normal school."
Every member of staff - subject teachers, instructors, classroom assistants and technical experts - is expected to fulfil a pastoral role, says George Ralston, manager of the Irvine centre.
"We develop caring, supportive relationships with pupils. We work closely with the parents and keep them involved. We visit the kids in their homes.
We send someone to support them and speak up for them at children's panels."
And guidance and support don't end with formal schooling. "They'll be going into work or further education when they leave, so we organise work placements and college visits," says Mr Ralston. "We want them to do well - our job is only half done when they leave. Every one of them has a goal they're working towards, whether it's work, further education or return to mainstream schooling."
There have, however, been few returns to mainstream, he concedes, and the reason is simple: Spark of Genius is pleasant and rewarding for these kids; mainstream is not. "I couldn't go back to mainstream," says Scott.
Vicki Ogilvie, 15, who now attends the smallest of the school's centres, located in a suite of rooms above a shop in Argyll Street, Dunoon, says:
"It is dead relaxed and laid back. You don't get told what to do - they ask you. You get more contact with teachers.
"I like working away at the computer and knowing I can get help when I need it."
Charles Smith, who will soon be 14, says: "The teachers never had time to help me in mainstream. They ignored me or sent me out of class because I was acting stupid. The computers here are cool. But I really like not having to act stupid to get attention."
Recruiting staff with the personal qualities needed to provide such a positive experience for pupils is not always easy, says the head of education systems, Jim Telford, whose role is to "ensure the right mix of resources, systems and people around the five sites".
"All the kids have targets. Return to mainstream will be a short-term target for some, a long-term target for others. For a number it won't be a target at all, because they've been out of mainstream for such a long time.
"Our teachers tend to be young or recently qualified, with a fresh and open outlook on education. We see their pastoral role as fundamental.
So while contracted to work 9am to 5pm, they make home visits at times outside these hours."
The idyllic picture of contented kids working with caring adults in peaceful environments might suggest that youngsters have an easy time at Spark. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Mr McGhee. "Our fundamental aim is to focus these kids and give them lots of work. The technology engages their attention and helps them get beyond the issues that brought them here.
"You can't do that if they're playing computer games or watching a video of a Shakespeare play - instead of being taught it, interacting with it and writing an effective essay on it.
"Our youngsters have very ambitious targets, academic and personal. We expect them to work really hard. That hasn't always been the case for excluded young people, who often end up in projects that ask less of them.
"We don't believe in that model. We ask more."
WHAT SPARK OF GENIUS HAS ACHIEVED SO FAR
* 92 per cent of pupils have improved their attendance since coming to Spark
* 89 per cent of Spark pupils are almost never late
* 71 per cent of pupils have had a positive change in self-esteem
* 32 per cent of pupils were under an order from children's panels on admission; only 1.5 per cent are now under an order
* 95 per cent of pupils selected the teachers as something they liked
* 86 per cent of parents were less worried about behaviour at home since coming to Spark
* 81 per cent were less worried about behaviour in the community
The statistics, not yet published, come from a review of the service recently commissioned by Spark of Genius