Blessed is the peacemaker
Earlier this year I was doing a home visit to a student's family and the kid came in, ripped his shirt off and went for his Dad," says Alan Scarisbrick-Wright, an outreach worker for the Queen's school in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. "Dad immediately reacted. Temper to temper. I got Dad out of the room by asking him to make some coffee. While he was out, I told the pupil his attitude wasn't helping things. I popped into the kitchen and told Dad he wasn't helping the situation.
"Then I had one of them on one side of the room and the other on the other side; they were talking to each other through me in the middle. I was there for two and a half hours. It turned out the whole incident was over who was going to make a cup of tea."
Queen's, an 11 to 16 comprehensive, has a catchment that contains the tenth most deprived ward in Europe: a place where stormy home and street life easily spill over into school. Many of the 1,400 pupils come from tiny Fenland village primaries.
It is a potentially explosive combination, and explosions can be hard to avoid, says 12-year-old Darrell, himself the subject of several short-term exclusions following fights in Years 7 and 8.
"Anything really sets me off. If anyone says anything about my family then I just fly. Me and the lads would have arguments and I would hit them."
Much of Darrell's week is now spent in Queen's learning support unit, with Janet Copeland, from the county's secondary support and inclusion service.
It is a large, quite bare but homely room: there are desks, low tables and comfortable chairs. A handful of the most volatile students work here but also talk, quietly and safely, with adults to listen to them.
"Darrell was very angry when he first came," says Janet. "It took a long time to build up his trust. We talk about things that go wrong: what happened and why they happened. We talk about what's happening in his life, to try to make the learning he does more relevant to it. We do some work through game situations he can relate to. There's a lot of emphasis on self-esteem, building confidence, getting something right and feeling a sense of pride."
There is an atmosphere of calm and of hearing both sides of any story. "We negotiate," she says. " 'If you do 10 more minutes' work, then you can play a game.'If there's conflict between students, we separate them, talk to them individually, hear both sides, meet halfway.
"Pupils will come in and say 'It's all his fault - he started it'. By the time they have talked through the whole thing, their voices are lowering, they're not shouting. They can see I'm listening to them and taking it on board. That's part and parcel of having respect for them as people."
It does make a difference, says Darrell:
"I still have arguments, but when I am going to hit someone I walk away."
Is it difficult? "Very."
Only Queen's most problematic pupils work in the unit, but for the past 18 months many others have had access to a lunch club in the same building, started and run by two teaching assistants: Bev Welbourn and Nicki Cobbin.
Both have experience as residential social workers; both were aware of children's vulnerability at lunchtimes.
"We started as a safe haven for waifs and strays," says Nicki. Soon they found pupils causing playground trouble came in too. Now around 40 a day turn up, for 25 minutes, to chat or play board and card games. Mobile phones and coats are permitted; food (for reasons of hygiene) and computers (no social interaction) are not. Only students who are "top dogs, with a following," are refused entry, "because if they came in then the ones with low esteem wouldn't," says Nicki.
"We have victims and bullies playing chess and Connect 4 together," says Bev. "Games are about taking turns, having respect for one another. Two students might come in with tension between them, but if we get them to do something with each other then it starts to dissolve."
The unit and lunch club are two parts of Queen's conflict-reducing structure. The school has non-teaching staff specifically to support emotionally troubled pupils and families - in an area containing children's homes and travellers' sites as well as long-term family feuds - plus a health worker and outreach worker.
But, says Chris Bloor, an assistant head and the special needs co-ordinator, every member of staff is involved. She monitors daily reports about which teachers use the school's on-call system of senior staff to intervene in classroom conflict. Some use it far more than others, she says. In some cases this is due to inexperience: this year the school has 22 newly qualified teachers. In others, conflict may be more inherent in teaching style. Classroom observation, support and and training are all part of improving this situation, she says.
"What tends to happen is things go very quickly from being a very minor incident to 'I am sending for on-call' and the in-between strategies aren't being used.
"Sometimes you need tactical ignoring. Sometimes you need to give a kid take-up time. If I say 'Take your scarf off now', and stand over you, you are very unlikely to do it. If I say 'I like the work you're doing, and by the way would you take the scarf off' and then move away, you're likely to take it off. You need to ask 'Is this classroom a welcoming place? Does it say it values learning? Does everyone know what they are supposed to be doing?' You need to catch students being good. You need to make very few threats, but when you do, you have to carry them out."
There have no permanent exclusions in four years, but, for the most difficult children, accommodating strategies will never be enough, she agrees. Hence the school's use of Alan Scarisbrick-Wright, employed all year round to support children and families. He has about a dozen children on his caseload, and offers anger-management instruction to parents and children, visiting, telephoning, sometimes persuading families that a child they see as good at home is table-throwing unreasonable at school.
Sometimes he needs to persuade a family to encourage their child's social life, so they learn to tolerate peers. Other times he extricates troublesome leaders from the led.
"A lot of my time is spent just talking and listening. Occasionally I think teachers think I'm the big enemy, because I'm keeping the bad ones in and they want them out. But I think we're keeping the child in education."