Champions of the disheartened

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Children who struggle at school can feel locked out of the education system. In Glasgow, a support team from the charity Quarriers helps primary and secondary students to recognise the causes and opt in again, reports Eleanor Caldwell

When a child is struggling at school but the problems are difficult to pinpoint, particularly with regard to behaviour, sometimes an outside agency can help.

At St Paul's High and Hillpark Secondary in Glasgow the name of Quarriers is well-known, if sometimes misheard. "How do you get into that Warriors thing? It sounds good," pupils have been known to ask.

The third largest care charity in Scotland, which has been running for 130 years and provides services from about 70 bases in west-central and north-east Scotland, Quarriers works in the two secondary schools and their 10 associated primaries on an Opt-in project to provide additional support for 200 pupils and their families.

The project was first developed in 2002 after research by the Greater Pollok Social Inclusion Partnership the previous year highlighted the links between social exclusion, underachievement and poor behaviour in Pollok schools. The partnership, which is involved in running the programme, aims to promote a more positive view of education among less advantaged and vulnerable young people and encourage positive dialogue and co-operative work in schools and the community.

Key aspects of the Quarriers' work is challenging the root causes of poverty and inequality of opportunity and choice.

The programme's main target group is 10- to 14-year-olds, based on local youth justice statistics. Issues such as family conflict, bullying and poor school attendance are identified and addressed as reasons for underachievement.

A team of six Opt-in staff tries to identify the most vulnerable pupils and offer a range of coherent support aspects within their schools. Work starts in the primaries, where the Quarriers team leads P7-S1 transition programmes for all P7 pupils. The six sessions are structured into 5-15 minute activities and games, with a strong focus on circle time, brainstorming, discussion and time for reflection. Children are encouraged to get to know themselves and one another and to consider their hopes and fears about secondary school.

Project worker Ellen Fahy says these sessions help to identify vulnerable or potentially vulnerable youngsters for whom secondary school might be difficult.

At Burnbrae Primary, headteacher Roberta Lundy is delighted with the effectiveness of the support all 19 children in the P7 class receive.

Teachers spend a half-day with the Quarriers team, working on the preparation and planning of workshops, and then do follow-up work on workshop themes and activities in personal and social development lessons.

Project workers give extra support to children with specific difficulties.

For example, two pupils work twice a week with Ms Fahy on reading skills, using the Toe by Toe reading programme, which Mrs Lundy says has benefited them greatly. The children relate well to Ms Fahy, having worked with her in the P7-S1 transition workshops and are showing a marked improvement in their reading skills and a raised level of self-esteem.

Two other pupils have Quarriers befrienders who regularly see them out of school.

"It is a completely holistic approach," says Mrs Lundy. "We all keep each other informed. The class teacher gains information from Ellen's workshop reports and she can tell Ellen about any areas of concern she has had in the classroom."

Quarriers staff have helped to strengthen contact with pupils' parents, who appreciate having more than one link with the school. They can provide additional support in the form of home visits, which has helped to tackle problems of poor attendance.

In the two secondary schools, the Quarriers team works closely with guidance staff, educational psychologists, social workers and parents to identify and develop full profiles of vulnerable pupils.

At St Paul's High, the Quarriers team is visible and accepted. The school's joint assessment team gives Opt-in staff information on pupils' achievement in class, behaviour and social issues. Individual teachers and parents can also make referrals to them and pupils can refer themselves for support.

The team discusses issues such as anger management with the selected youngsters, giving them the opportunity to adopt a more objective view and assess the root causes, such as personality clashes with teachers, the speed of lessons or the sense of failure produced by teachers' unrealistic expectations.

"The young people know we're a voluntary organisation and not part of the bureaucracy and they are willling to open up," says services manager Julie Richardson. "But they also understand that we liaise closely with school staff and their families."

The team offers group work and one-to-one learning support in the school, depending on a pupil's needs. Once behavioural problems have been identified and discussed, agreement on realistic targets for improvement can be reached. If specific learning difficulties emerge in the course of discussions, then pupils can undertake individual work.

Project worker Alison Colville works with S2 pupil Robert Foote on different pieces of subject-based work. She says the key roots of problems can emerge in the course of supported learning as well as in more therapeutic discussion work. "It's an excellent way of just getting to know the young people," she says.

Robert's mother, Donna, appreciates the value of the project. She says it can be hard for teachers to understand the reasons for Robert's difficulties, but Opt-in gives him the time and space to learn to trust an adult, where that trust has broken down in the classroom. Once the problem is pinpointed, a simple change of teacher can be the answer.

Mrs Foote also believes the Quarriers project provides a much needed link with the community, helping young people to understand that the roots of their problems may lie outside school and that their behaviour in school can have an adverse effect on life outside.

Mrs Foote runs a community parents support group and has found the Opt-in approaches useful to pass on to other parents. "You need all the help and support you can get when your child is obviously struggling," she says.

The Quarriers team can also offer support for specific learning difficulties and back up the work of other professionals such as speech and language therapists. They run circle time sessions as part of the S2 personal and social education programme and can be called upon to give individual help in the classroom. For a pupil with autistic spectrum difficulties, for example, a team member could be on hand to help tidy up at the end of a lesson and arrange for the pupil to leave slightly earlier than the rest of the class.

Work is frequently focused on pupils with less obvious problems. A small group of S1 girls suffering regular stomach aches and other minor ailments turned out to be having problems with friendships, which were leading to a lack of self-esteem.

After-school and lunchtime drop-in sessions have proved popular at both St Paul's High and Hillpark Secondary, as have five-day summer schools. Some are curriculum-based - modern languages, art and drama - others are community-based, with input from the fire service, police and Cardonald College. Various outdoor activities and day trips also are arranged.

The depute headteacher at St Paul's High, John McKee, says: "The Opt-in project is an invaluable resource for the school that allows us to reach out to the parents of children experiencing difficulties. It also means that the Quarriers staff can work outwith school hours to give special attention to these children to help solve their problems.

"The school staff have responded well to the work and value the project highly."

e-mail 0141 891

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