Celtic sanctuaries for the troubled

11th February 2000 at 00:00
In times of crisis, Celts would retreat to the safety of a crannog, to hide or heal themselves. Now modern programmes aim to emulate the peace and power of such havens for our problem pupils. Julie Morrice visits one.

In times of trouble, the Celts of Scotland took refuge in a lake or bog dwelling called a crannog. Accessible by a walkway across water, it was strong and easily-defended. Crannog is also the name of a project in Dumfries and Galloway which works with young people at risk of exclusion from school. On the wall of his small office in the council's education department, Crannog's service manager Steve McCreadie has a photograph of a reconstructed ancient crannog on Loch Tay. "The name 'Crannog' has been hugely helpful in defining the project," he says. "It helps us to explain our work to the young people."

The ancient fort offered a withdrawal from trouble. It was a temporary refuge - the Celts would return to the mainland once the trouble was over. It was safe, yet linked to the outside world. Its use would change depending on need. All these qualities are mirrored in the Crannog project.

There are three Crannogs to cover the whole of sprawling Dumfries and Galloway: in Stranraer, in Annan, and on the Lochside estate in Dumfries. This last is a single-storey modern box, cheered up by a gaudy mural. Inside, it is instantly welcoming, with bright blue furniture and walls covered with young people's work, photographs and posters.

In the cosy classroom a second-year pupil is busily working on her project folder, on homelessness, vandalism and Britney Spears. Her Crannog worker Ginny turns up with two huskies and a bundle of waterproofs for a wet Friday afternoon excursion. Meanwhile project manager Colin Beckwith produces coffee and sandwiches from the kitchen.

Reading the potted case histories Beckwith and his team have produced, one suspects things are not always so calm at Crannog. Since it was set up in 1997 the project as a whole has worked with 95 young people with a vast range of social, emotional and behavioural problems. The reality behind the professional terminology can be imagined: "the relationship between pupil and school had broken down"; "aggressive and challenging behaviour"; "disruptive and violent behaviour at school"; "school non-attendance, concerns about substance misuse and moral danger"; "very disturbed, sexualised and intimidating behaviour". These are descriptions of young people who, until recently would most likely have been placed in a residential school outside Dumfries and Galloway. Now, thanks to the unique partnership between the local authority's education and social work departments and national charity the Aberlour Child Care Trust, they have been given the chance to work out problems in the supportive Crannog environment.

"Three years ago Dumfries and Galloway had comparatively high exclusion levels and a high number of placements in residential schools," says Stuart Beck, head of psychology and learning support in the education department of Dumfries and Galloway council. He is refreshingly open about the process that led to the creation of Crannog. Dumfries and Galloway had a not-unusual problem: lack of co-ordination in assessing troubled young people meant conflicting advice from social workers, psychologists and others. Unimpressed, the Children's Panel was sending children out of the area to residential school at an anual cost of pound;1.5-2 million, leaving less money to spend on local services. Something was needed to break the vicious circle. "We wanted something that offered a different perspective, says Beck, "not another face of the authority, but new thinking, new ideas. We were ready to listen."

Having conducted a review of provision for young people, the council invited tenders for a new support service. Aberlour was chosen, and a major overhaul of the assessment and referral system began. Three years later, both Aberlour and the council are delighted with the scheme.

"I can't over-emphasise the importance of the partnership," says Aberlour's Steve McCreadie. "The council has established a new standard for working with young people. Collaborative working is at its heart."

It is hard to generalise about what happens at Crannog. Each young person has a programme tailor-made to their needs. It may involve visiting the centre for several days a week instead of attending school. It may mean a Crannog worker meeting the young person at home or in the learning support unit at school, or sitting in on classes they find difficult. One pupil regularly missing classes was eventually found in the school toilets. So his Crannog worker met him there for a while. What is common to all the programmes is a belief in the young person and in engaging with them. Crannog is about support, self-expression, high expectations, positive affirmation, and a basic belief that change is possible.

"Whatever people might think, we don't reward bad behaviour," says Colin Beckwith. "We work as much as possible with motivation and clear incentives."

Young people are referred for an initial eight weeks. "It's designed to be a short-term service and we keep numbers relatively low so we can provide an intensive level of support," says McCreadie, "but in fact the average length of a programme is seven months." However, McCreadie points out, the process can take time: "These are young people who have had promises broken or been let down. Their willingness to attach themselves to someone or something has been damaged."

Planning a programme for a young person at Crannog is often a balancing act between meeting the pupil's curricular needs and providing suitable social care. "In juggling these, the headteacher or guidance staff can be very important," says McCreadie. Crannog regularly liaises with schools and will fully discuss a pupil's reintegration into the school when, and if, the time comes. "Broadly speaking," says McCreadie, "schools value the additional support offered by Crannog."

Crannog also has a training remit, offering courses on working with conflict, helping families to talk, engagement skills and other subjects. The courses are attended by teachers, social workers, foster carers and Children's Panel members, giving them a chance to meet each other in a non-stressful setting.

Measuring Crannog's success is not easy. The number of exclusions in Dumfries and Galloway schools is coming down, and Crannog has contributed to that. The number of residential placements has plummeted from 36 in 1997 to 5 in 1999, and Crannog can take a lot of the credit. There are a lot of young people getting on rather better than they were, but how can you measure that?

"It's like a compass bearing," says McCreadie,"a tiny change, a shift of one degree can make a huge difference over a long distance."

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