Exclusion isn't the answer

6th April 2007 at 01:00
Early intervention is how a London borough has avoided barring primary pupils for bad behaviour

For a seven-year-old who regularly sees his father beating up his mother, violence is a reasonable option. But when this same boy starts throwing chairs around the classroom, Gwynfor Hood believes he should not be excluded from school.

Mr Hood is head of St John's education centre in Hackney. Next month, he will celebrate one year in the east London borough, where primary exclusions have dropped from five or six every year to none at all.

"Early intervention is crucial, absolutely crucial," he said. "Most young offenders were permanently excluded when they were younger. We don't want to give them that label. You don't need a permanent solution to what is usually a temporary issue."

Primary pupils at risk of exclusion, usually because of violent or disruptive behaviour, are referred to St John's. There, Mr Hood looks for the problems that cause children as young as five to act this way.

"These are children who've been traumatised by issues to do with adults,"

he said. "They could have been sexually abused or witnessed domestic violence. There could be addictions or parents trying to kill each other.

You don't leave these kinds of issues at the school gates."

Mr Hood and his staff of three teachers and five teaching assistants aim to provide children with a sense of stability and continuity. They focus on teamwork, through canoeing, mountain-biking and swimming trips, as well as visits to museums. For many, these are their first trips outside the borough, their past behaviour having barred them previously.

Staff do not yell at children, but they are trained to physically restrain them if necessary. Violent pupils are taken out of class and taught one-on-one until their behaviour merits their return.

"We're clear what the expectations are," Mr Hood said. "There are no fifth-last chances."

He also works closely with parents and children to ensure that both learn from the experience.

Alison Dunn believes that her nine-year-old son, Asher, has gained from his time at St John's. "Originally I thought, why would I want to send my kid to a bad school full of bad kids?" she said. "But it's been very positive.

The staff are good, strong role models, and they don't take his behaviour personally."

Asher agrees. "The teachers are nice," he said. "They don't shout if you can't do your work. And you get to do more things than normal school, like swimming and canoeing."

Mr Hood also helps build up relationships between pupils and the schools to which they return.

Heather Rockhold, head of Lauriston primary, has one of his former pupils on her roll. "We were concerned about the child's needs and how best to meet them," she said. "So it was useful to be able to contact St John's for advice.

"You've got to look at the whole child and make school a positive place for him or her. The more that can be done at primary school, the better for society as a whole."

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