Challenged to find purpose in their lives

5th May 2006 at 01:00
At Oakbank, a residential school in Aberdeen for young people with social, emotional, educational and behavioural needs, the pupils are, on the face of it, at greater risk of becoming Neet - not in education, employment or training - than those in mainstream schools.

All have been in local authority care - another determinant of a young person's likelihood of becoming Neet. Yet all surpass the national target of achieving five Standard grades and many go on to educational and vocational placements. This year alone, pupils are going on to study art, computing, childcare, construction, hairdressing, English and music at colleges.

Jane Arrowsmith, principal of the independent special school, advocates further opportunities being made available for young people in care between the ages of 16 and 18.

"It seems to me unfortunate that 16 is the magic cut-off point for our children. I would like to see a service being provided, which is funded, and allows them to achieve further," she says.

She attributes the school's success to a range of factors and wishes that other schools were more prepared to engage with Oakbank and share the best practice it has developed.

Many of the pupils placed at Oakbank have suffered disruption in their education, a chaotic family lifestyle, have a fear of failure and display very challenging behaviour. Staff, therefore, work on the holistic development of each one and provide a 24-hour curriculum to provide "a compensatory and enrichment experience". Personal and social development can involve everything from sport to charity work. Mrs Arrowsmith says the pupils get back 10 times what they put in to fundraising work for Children in Need. Therapeutic support is also available.

The 24-hour curriculum includes a "challenge and achievement" programme which is tailored to provide individuals with challenges so that they can take a risk and experience success, says Mrs Arrowsmith.

Last year, the entire school took part in a phased descent of the River Spey in Canadian canoes, in which they had to erect and sleep in South American tepees, and cook all their own food. It is all about breaking a cycle of failure.

The pupils have individual educational programmes, and learning is contextualised for them. Learning has to be meaningful.

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