Banishing fear from classroom

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
Inspectors have praised a scheme that eases school phobics back into the system.

Sixteen-year-old Mia does not vomit in school any more. The Year 11 pupil used to find it impossible to sit through lessons. She would feel claustrophobic and begin to cry, feel nauseous and hyperventilate. But this year Mia will sit six GCSEs. She is one of 15 pupils attending Tracks, a unit for school phobics in Bradford.

School phobia affects 1 per cent of all children. Sufferers experience panic or anxiety attacks related to school. They are physically incapable of attending lessons but are often wrongly treated as rule-breakers.

"My English teacher said, 'You're not leaving the room'," said Mia. "But I had to get out. I nearly collapsed with fear. I love English. I didn't want to leave the classroom, but I couldn't cope."

Tracks was established to provide pupils like Mia with an alternative to one-to-one tuition. John Nixon, its head, came up with the idea while overseeing home education in Bradford.

"These kids don't cause their schools significant difficulties," he said, "they just don't attend. So it's very easy to ignore them. The academic outcomes from home tuition are often quite good. But there's no social interaction. It produces young people still remote from society."

Year 10 and 11 pupils are offered lessons in maths, science and English literature and language. There is also a social worker in the unit, as well as a part-time educational psychologist.

Pupils are admitted only after all methods of getting them back to school have been exhausted. Sixteen-year-old Peter (pupils' names have been changed) was at home for almost 18 months before he was offered a place. He had stopped attending school after being repeatedly bullied for wearing Goth clothes.

Like all newcomers he was introduced to Tracks gradually, spending time in a separate kitchen and seating area before beginning to attend lessons.

"I was very nervous," he said. "I thought they'd look at me and call me names. But I didn't get any bother from anyone. They were cool about me coming in."

The unit now has an 86 per cent attendance rate for pupils who have not been to school for years. And Ofsted has praised Tracks as "a valuable resource".

All Tracks pupils are also registered with their mainstream secondary, so that they have the chance to return. Three of them, including Mia, are taking some lessons at their schools - Mia goes in for GCSE in drama and art.

"When I started at Tracks, I was absolutely terrified," she said. "I get scared of new places, so it was a real challenge. But I'm a high achiever.

It bothers me that I can't do as many subjects as at a mainstream school.

Now I'm going to do A-levels, so my options are open. It's a huge relief."

Mr Nixon hopes that other authorities will follow Bradford's example. "Have we been lucky, or did we get it right?" he said. "It's difficult to know.

But it's a way of enabling frightened, anxious children to reach their potential."

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