Children behaving better

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Five years ago, a nine-year-old came up to the new pastoral care worker at Claycots Middle School in Slough and asked her why she was always happy and smiling.

When Jan Metcalfe replied that it was good to enjoy life when you could, the girl gave her a hard stare, and said, no, she preferred to be sad.

"I realised she had come to the conclusion that it was better to stay sad because then when you were knocked, you didn't have so far to fall," says Jan Metcalfe.

Her task, with Carol Ashby at the neighbouring Lynch Hill combined school,has been to befriend such children to help bring confidence and pleasure back into their lives. The two schools draw their pupils from the notorious Britwell Estate, beset by unemployment, social and drug problems.

"The children have to be street-wise at a young age, and they develop so strong a sense of survival and looking out for themselves, that co-operation and discipline and getting on together are quite alien to them," says Carol Ashby.

As a result of escalating problems in schools, Berkshire County Council in 1992 approached Schools Outreach,a small charity which places specialist workers in schools to alleviate the strain of pastoral care work on teachers.

A pastoral care worker was allocated to each of the two schools, and for the first three years the project was part-funded by the Department for Education and Employment. Since then, like the other dozen or so schools involved in Schools Outreach, the Britwell Estate schools have had to seek independent funding where they can.

The job itself varies considerably according to the needs of the school. While Jan Metcalfe, a former teacher and personal development trainer, found she was able to establish regular group sessions for children with similar difficulties, Carol Ashby, with a background in youth and community work, has had to be more of a fire-fighter; her attempts at group work were, she says, too often disrupted by other children running out of school and needing someone to go after them.

Gillian Coffey, headteacher at Lynch Hill, says before the Schools Outreach project began, pupils were running riot. "We had a lot of very aggressive children. They mutilated themselves, they threw chairs and climbed out of windows, they had fights in class which drew blood."

Berkshire's home-school liaison officers had had very limited success because they were simply not there enough. But having a resident pastoral care worker, she says, has changed the school. "There is a sense of calmness now. The children come to school feeling a greater sense of security."

The key to the success of Schools Outreach appears to lie in the fact that the pastoral care worker is not seen as an authority figure, but, in Jan and Carol's words, is "a non-official adult friend". They mingle with children and their parents in the playground; they have a room in school where they are almost always available and, at times, they may also visit families in their homes.

We can get through the door when social services, or educational welfare officers cannot, because the families trust us," says Jan Metcalfe.

It is a tricky job, in that the pastoral care worker has to be a go-between, mediating between children and teachers, teachers and parents,families and social workers. To be trusted by the different parties takes a good year.

The problems the children bring range from suspected sexual abuse to quarrels with their friends. Serious allegations are referred to the head-teacher and, if social services have to be brought in, the pastoral care worker will help the child and the family.

If a child is experiencing problems at home, such as the break-up of parents, or in school, such as bullying, the pastoral care worker will listen to the child and then help them explain the problem to their teacher. Teachers, too, will often ask the care worker to step in if they become aware of difficulties.

At times, Carol Ashby says, the queues of seven and eight-year-old girls outside her door with trivial complaints have got a bit out of hand, but the important thing is that children should feel free to see her.

"I've been to see Miss Ashby loads of times, when I've broken up with my friends, " says Becky Brench, 11. "Miss Ashby spends the time with you, and brings you all together to talk about it. The teacher doesn't have time."

Boys are much less likely to seek out a pastoral care worker unless specifically referred by a teacher.

"My mum keeps wanting me to come and see Miss Ashby because I've got a problem with my temper," says Jonathan Doyle, 11. "But I'd be embarrassed - my mates would say I was too weak and chicken to fight; when I'm in a temper I say things like that too."

In a school where parents used never to step over the threshold unless their child was in trouble, Carol Ashby's presence, and her weekly mothers and toddlers sessions, have brought parents more readily into school, and given them the chance to talk to someone about their worries. To brighten the monotony of life on the estate, Carol Ashby has also organised canoeing and rock-climbing at the community centre, visits to the local Variety Club, and trips to a centre in North Wales - including one just for the mothers.

But the downside of Schools Outreach is that when the funding comes to an end the pastoral care worker has to move on. Carol Ashby will be leaving Lynch Hill in July for a Schools Outreach post at a secondary school. Secondaries find it easier than primaries to get funding for projects of this kind, which Gillian Coffey argues is very short-sighted.

"We're horrified at the thought of losing Carol Ashby - we'll be back to square one. You come to rely on having someone here and it is totally demoralising when you lose it." The children are similarly pessimistic about the future without Miss Ashby.

"There'll be more squabbling in the school than there is now," predicts Melissa Shadrache, 11.

"There'll only be about five people in the playground," adds Mary-Ann Holman, 11. "Everyone else will be inside on a detention."

Schools Outreach: 01527 574404

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