Haven for difficult children

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Time in a safe room helps a group of pupils learn to stay calm.

Diana Hinds reports

Julie Greer, head of Cherbourg primary school in Eastleigh, has long been committed to inclusion and her school has developed a strong special needs profile, with more than the average number of children receiving help from School Action Plus. So it was no surprise when the school was asked, two-and-a-half years ago, by Hampshire education authority, if it would house the county's first resource provision for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (EBD).

"They wanted us to have an EBD unit," says Greer, "and from that moment on I banned the word 'unit'." Many similar examples of resource provision are called units, and they operate fairly independently of the school they are attached to. But Greer was determined to establish something far more integral to the life of her school.

She succeeded in persuading the county architect to convert the existing staff room, rather than build something new and separate, and she refused to let him put high handles on the doors as a means of keeping pupils in.

Her philosophy was much more about using the room as a base, a place of safety, for pupils with social communication and behaviour problems, where they could learn strategies to help them in the mainstream classroom.

When they are ready, the children spend as much of the day as possible with their mainstream peers, returning to their own room if the situation becomes too much and they need help calming down.

The jarjum's room

The room quickly became the "Jarjum's room" - using an Aboriginal word meaning children. The name was borrowed from Cherbourg state school, the school's counterpart in Australia, which is a largely Aboriginal school that has just such a room for giving pupils individual help.

With funding from the DfES innovation unit, Cherbourg primary hired Aboriginal storyteller and artist, Francis Firebrace, to paint a mural in the Jarjum's room, and the whole school enjoyed a day of Aboriginal stories, pictures and didgeridoo-playing.

The mural has an inclusive theme: it tells the story of how, at the beginning of the world, the platypus was asked to join the mammals, the birds and the fish in turn, but that he explains in the end that he would like to be a part of all of them.

The Jarjum's room at Cherbourg school opened in early 2005. It is a bright and attractive space, with seven pale purple desks - or "pods" - specially designed (by First Design in Hampshire) with a high rounded front to give a feeling of security, and to prevent pupils from interfering with the person next to them.

Local authority referrals

Six children, referred by the local authority, are currently based here; the oldest is in Year 4. They have a range of difficulties, including ADHD and autistic spectrum disorders, and can fly into violent tempers if things go wrong.

Some have been excluded from previous schools. One boy had been in ten different places before coming to Cherbourg at the age of five, and he now spends most of his time in a Year 1 classroom.

Another girl had taught herself to read by the age of 3, but she was excluded from her school in Year 1.

"All of them are bright, but their behaviour has acted as a barrier until now," says Julie Greer. "It's lovely to see them start to learn again."

The Jarjum's room is run by primary teacher Lisa Sansome (see box, below left), together with four part-time, specially trained, learning support assistants, who also help in the classrooms.

Scared and Angry

When the children first come to the Jarjum's room they are often "very angry, very scared", says Greer. But after several months of support, learning to control their outbursts and to play with other children, most are ready for the mainstream classroom, though they always take with them a walkie-talkie that their teacher can use to get help if things get out of hand.

"You need to be consistent and have boundaries there, and patience," says Stephanie Whitlock, an assistant who works in the Jarjum's room in the afternoons. "You are tested by these children, but they come on in leaps and bounds - and when you see them no longer totally dependent on adults, and getting on with their peers, that's very satisfying."

The mainstream children are generally accepting of their Jarjum classmates.

"Some people find it hard to learn, so it's better to have the Jarjum's room to help them," says Bebiano Da Silva, aged 10.

"Sometimes I can hear a girl shouting in the hallway and it puts you off a little bit," says Emma Ralph, 9. "But the good thing about it is that she can be very kind. We try to help them by showing them how to behave."

Respect and responsibility

Cherbourg primary is not an inclusive school simply by virtue of having a Jarjum's room. Rather, its ethos, built over the years, of respect, empathy and inclusivity, has made it possible for Cherbourg to be successful in integrating Jarjum's children into its mainstream classes.

One of the key features here is Cherbourg's commitment to the rights of the child, as enshrined in the United Nations Convention: the right, for instance, to have an education, to enjoy play, to have a voice.

Mark Edgeller, a Year 3 and 4 teacher, became interested in children's rights when he began encouraging class discussions to improve children's speaking and listening, and this developed into a training programme for teachers. Julie Greer was one of a group of Hampshire teachers to visit children's rights researchers in Nova Scotia. The school is now part of Hampshire's rights, respect and responsibility programme.

The Rights way to think

Children's rights, as a way of helping children to understand their place in the world, have been incorporated into schemes of work at Cherbourg, including work on racism with Years 5 and 6, and a "participation and play"

project in Years 3 and 4, in which children devise the games they would like to play.

"The idea is to help children to make decisions, to think critically and to articulate their ideas," says Mark Edgeller.

The rights work has also extended into the school's thriving family learning programme. Mark Edgeller has now run two accredited courses for parents and children looking at rights, respect and responsibility, in which parents debate with each other, and make games and puppets with their children to explore these ideas in a global context.

"I went away with totally different thoughts," says Carol Brooks, a parent and teaching assistant. "And it made the children stop and think about how lucky they are."

The importance of respecting children's views underlines all that happens at Cherbourg primary. On the day of my visit, for example, Julie Greer is running an impromptu circle-time session for Year 4 girls, to help them find a solution to bullying problems in the school playground.

"It's not about handing over the reins to the children, but I think you have to respect them and give their ideas a chance," she says.

The Cherbourg children are certainly getting the message. "What they do here, it's not just that you can write your opinions, you have to," says Rebecca Lombardi, 11. "Otherwise, it wouldn't be a school, would it?"

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