Better learning in an ethos of support

28th January 2005 at 00:00
The Scottish Executive is giving education authorities pound;35 million to spend on additional support staff to help with discipline in schools, but how much difference can they make? Raymond Ross visits Leith Academy, where support staff have been used extensively

The announcement two weeks ago of pound;35 million for extra support staff to help with discipline in schools will have been music to teachers' ears. It will "free teachers to teach the new curriculum, help all pupils to learn undisturbed and deal intensively with those pupils who need it most," said Education Minister Peter Peacock.

Local authorities will decide how exactly to spend the money over the next three years, but the idea is that it will pay for about 1,000 new members of staff, working in three key areas. Some will operate as support staff in pupil bases, devising programmes to change the behaviour of the most disruptive pupils; others will work as learning support assistants, helping classroom teachers and individual pupils, or as general classroom assistants.

The main discipline problems occur in secondary schools, particularly inner city comprehensives, though some have already made excellent progress and shown that support staff can make a difference.

One such school is Leith Academy in Edinburgh, where Mr Peacock chose to make his announcement. It has developed an integrated pupil support service, of which each part was piloted over several years and evaluated before final implementation.

"Pupils who have difficulty managing their behaviour are an area of concern for many teachers. Our integrated system is designed to support them," explains Don Cole, the depute headteacher in charge of pupil support.

"The day-to-day work done by class teachers is the basis of what we all do; that's the core. The additional services are there to support that.

"There are no simple answers. Every school would have to use the new money differently," he says.

"It's not about more teachers or more assistants; it's not an eitheror thing. It's about every school looking to its own needs and evaluating them and then using the resources flexibly."

Headteacher Sandy McAulay agrees. He welcomes the money from the Scottish Executive but thinks that how it is spent must be up to each individual school.

"Maybe a school will feel it has adequate specialist support staff but wants to spend it on more classroom assistants to free up teachers to teach. On the other hand, maybe we'll decide we need another youth worker, because of benefits we are experiencing."

Leith Academy offers three main support services for pupils: a curriculum support base, a support for learning base and an alternative education centre.

The curriculum support base is for pupils who are falling behind in subjects, those who have general rather than special problems which may be linked to behaviour andor caused by long-term absences, whether due to illness or truancy.

The support for learning base is used by pupils who have special learning difficulties, including Asperger's syndrome. Pupils are taken out of the mainstream class to receive additional support here, mostly in literacy and numeracy.

The alternative education centre is for pupils with serious behavioural difficulties who are at risk of exclusion or would be excluded if the centre did not exist. They are referred by a multi-disciplinary pupil support group.

Leith Academy's multi-agency approach also involves an allocated social worker. "Because she is allied to the school, parents don't tend to see her as a social worker, so we are not up against those automatic barriers," says Jack Simpson, the senior depute headteacher.

The school has no distinct registration classes; instead, pupils register at the start of period one subject classes. However, 70 of the 80 staff are involved in twice-weekly tutor groups, so most are involved with pastoral care to a degree and get to know pupils outwith subject teaching, acting as their tutors throughout their secondary careers.

Year assemblies also involve the pupils in a variety of school issues, from bullying and racism to the school development plan and target setting.

Proposals are put at these assemblies and then discussed in the tutor groups, which give written feedback so that pupils feel involved in how their school is developing.

Mr McAulay believes the integrated support system has improved attainment and behaviour because pastoral care and behaviour management are linked.

Guidance staff, operating under year heads, deal with both discipline and pastoral care. Parents know who to contact (the guidance year head) if there is a problem and class teachers can fill out a referral form to be dealt with initially by their department head, then the year head, and finally the senior management if the problem is serious or has not been resolved.

Gillian Cox, the principal teacher of English, says: "The referral system is a good system to change behaviour because it pursues dialogue, not punishment. No incident is isolated.

"There's a general culture of respect and co-operation and a genuine ethos of support."

"You can refer for information as well as action," says Alison Mitchell, the music teacher. "So, if you notice a change in a pupil's behaviour, a referral can allow guidance or support staff to find out if there is a problem.

"This school is about supporting the whole person, not just about teaching and learning, which I think is excellent."

Leith Academy, along with neighbouring secondaries in east Edinburgh, takes in pupils as part of an onward placing scheme which allows pupils to transfer schools if there are problems.

"We offer a fresh start to pupils who have too much baggage at their old school to succeed," says Mr Cole. "Of the opportunities we've given, the majority have been successful. We have six in the middle school at the moment who have fitted in.

"Of course, some find success here, then choose to return to their old school, which is fine," he says.

"We've also sent pupils on with some success."

The staff fully supports social inclusion, says Mr Simpson, but there are one or two pupils every year who cannot be contained in mainstream education.

Having the alternative education centre has helped. The school orders about 30-40 short-term exclusions every year but 90 per cent are one-time incidents. Its formal - permanent - exclusions in 2000-01 numbered three, in 2001-02 four, in 2002-03 (the year the centre opened) one and 2003-04 one.

"Most of our exclusions get into supported education because when we present the case we can clearly demonstrate that we have exhausted all strategies. We've been reasonably fortunate," says Mr Simpson.

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