Great expectations;Subject of the week;Special needs

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
One school's holistic ethos means pupils' emotional and behavioural problems are no barrier to academic success. Reva Klein reports.

Walking around New Rush Hall school with headteacher John d'Abbro is in some ways like being taken around any other school by a proud headteacher. There are some noteworthy paintings on the walls, interesting bits of writing, photographs of smiling kids.

But this is not any other school. For a start, there are only eight pupils in each class. But more striking is the fact that down the long corridors are teachers who have stepped out of classrooms with pupils. They are comforting them, listening to them, trying to get to the bottom of the distress or anger that has temporarily overwhelmed them.

One tall boy angrily kicks the wall as a teacher calmly talks to him about why he is feeling angry. Another child, this time a small boy, gives vent to an enraged cry that stops me in my tracks. The sound resonates with a rawness that is as disturbing as it is disturbed.

John d'Abbro swings into action, taking him aside to talk. In five minutes, the boy is stabilised and ambles off to lunch.

New Rush Hall is a day school in the London borough of Redbridge for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. On one level, it is remarkably successful, achieving higher than average academic results for a school of its type.

On another level, it is like all EBD schools: a repository for children who no other school wants. It contains, in both senses of the word, children who are overwhelmed by pain or alienation, or who simply cannot cope in large, anonymous schools for a whole range of reasons.

Some live in loveless or abusive families. Others have stable, loving families. Still others are in care. What you come away with after spending a few hours at New Rush Hall is the understanding that the label "EBD" disguises a multiplicity of reasons for children acting in disturbed ways.

You also come away with the feeling that it is destiny that has led to John d'Abbro's headship of New Rush Hall. He is one of the few - if only - EBD headteachers in Britain to have first-hand experience of being excluded and attending a special school himself. That he managed to return to mainstream education, complete teacher training, become a headteacher and embark on a MEd says a lot about his spirit, dynamism and abilities.

It also speaks volumes about his fierce passion when it comes to defending his pupils - and special schools like his. He is a force to be reckoned with.

From where d'Abbro sits there is plenty of reckoning to be getting on with, thanks to Ofsted inspections, market forces in education, league tables and under-resourcing.

But as he sees it, his greatest problem is the lack of understanding of who the children labelled as having emotional and behavioural difficulties are, why they behave like they do and what is required to make a positive impact on their troubled lives. "When it comes to EBD, people see kids' behaviour but don't try to understand the reasons behind it."

The day of reckoning for all teachers to confront the whys and wherefores of EBD children is fast approaching. The Government's Green Paper on special educational needs, with its emphasis on inclusion for all, will be putting an unprecedented onus on mainstream schools to educate children presenting "special challenges". It will not be plain sailing.

And with the Secretary of State's recommendation that schools that exclude pupils be fined, there will be added pressures to find ways of coping with very difficult children.

Staff at New Rush Hall are concerned that the Green Paper, while based on sound principles, does not represent the full reality. As deputy headteacher Maureen Smyth puts it, "The pupils at our school aren't just children behaving badly. They have very complex needs. No matter how much support we give them here, for some it won't be enough to send them back into mainstream."

And if New Rush Hall is saying that, it should not be taken lightly. Much of the underlying principle of the school is preventive, with a focus on early intervention. An impressive model, the school is the centre of operations from which a range of EBD services are provided under the management of d'Abbro and his team, with strong support from Redbridge LEA. Where some authorities have EBD services that are splintered and unco-ordinated, those under New Rush Hall are carefully planned.

The school itself is actually a small part of the operation: when it is full, there are 30 in the primary section and 40 in secondary, some part-time, some full-time, with the overwhelming majority boys.

The average ratio is a teacher for every eight pupils. Attached to the school is a 40-place pupil referral unit on two sites, where students get academic and vocational instruction.

But the real centrepiece is its outreach programme, supporting about 350 mainstream pupils in different ways. New Rush Hall staff provide some with one-to-one support, others with counselling, while many more benefit from in-service training that its staff provides to schools.

John Pallet, officer in charge of special needs at Redbridge, believes that the success of this approach is at least in part responsible for the drop in permanent exclusions in the borough. "Three years ago, there were 51; now we're down to 30," he says. "We've found other ways of accommodating these children. It may well be because of the existence of the pupil referral unit and the outreach work that schools have reduced the number of exclusions."

The high standards and coherence of the services means that there has been a rise in referrals from other LEAs for placements at New Rush Hall which, Pallet says, causes problems in planning provision. Among the referrals are children from LEAs that are supposedly leading the way on inclusion.

But if New Rush Hall is being used as a dumping ground from the outside, it certainly does not seem that way from within. Expectations are high and so is attainment for a school of its kind. Key stage 2 results in English, maths and science were above average and at GCSE level, 71 per cent of students received five or more A to Cs, compared to the national average for EBD schools of 38 per cent. Says d'Abbro: "A lot of EBD schools have been handicapping kids by not presenting them with high enough expectations." The figures have to be seen in context, though - because of the small numbers, there may only be three pupils taking exams in a year.

Among the innovations recently introduced are Spanish classes, and trips to Spain for secondary students. "If you'd told me three years ago that we should be teaching Spanish in an EBD school, I'd have said there were more important things to be doing," d'Abbro says.

"But I can say that it's been the most liberating experience for the pupils to be learning on a par with mainstream students. And being able to speak Spanish on trips has been terrifically empowering for them."

Hand-in-hand with the academic focus comes strong pastoral back-up. Mairead Gormley is a staff child and family counsellor. Despite her title she is quick to point out that "we're all working therapists here." Her particular remit is counselling and therapeutic work for children and their families, both in response to a crisis and as part of an on-going process.

It all makes for an approach that is holistic: caring, supportive and at the same time demanding the best of its pupils. But in the view of d'Abbro and his team, a recent Ofsted inspection left staff and children feeling bruised and deflated. "I really believed that it would be a celebration of the things we do well and an indicator of the areas we need to work more on. Instead, we experienced it as intrusive and at times insensitively handled. And we feel that it left us disadvantaged."

He cites the example of an inspector coming up to a child's table and picking up his book to look at it without saying a word. While such an action might simply be rude in a mainstream school, it is a different story in an EBD school. "The majority of the children here have had experiences of people making judgments about them," d'Abbro says. "To have inspectors sitting and taking notes in front of them destabilised them. We had behaviour in this school during the inspection week that we haven't seen since the school opened six years ago."

He is also unhappy about the piecemeal way in which the inspection was carried out. The outreach programme, for instance, could not be inspected because it was not in the remit of the school inspection. Instead of bringing six inspectors in for a week, "give me three inspectors for three weeks who can monitor the developmental way we work with our pupils". But he thinks that an altogether less disruptive approach would be to put video cameras in classrooms for observation purposes.

These and other elements of the inspection amount to what d'Abbro sees as an approach that is inappropriate to schools like his. He cites the disproportionate number of special schools that fail their inspections. Seven per cent, as compared to between 2 to 3 per cent of mainstream schools, are on special measures. Of those, a significant number are EBD schools.

Chris Marshall, HMI for special education, replies: "All inspection teams for special schools are vetted by HMI to see whether or not they are credible for the particular school. Occasionally, team members get changed for a visit; when that happens, the contractors are supposed to contact Ofsted."

In the end, New Rush Hall passed its inspection; the verbal feedback was very positive. Many other EBD schools will not be so "lucky".

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