A Colchester boys'school has moved from simply 'containing' its difficult pupils to integrating them successfully into the mainstream.Wendy Wallace reports on a sea change that has won the admiration of OFSTED inspectors.
At lunchtime, 12-year-old Craig, a pupil at the Heath School for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties, is in the staffroom, lamenting the state of the cuffs on his white shirt and getting the school secretary to help him with his tie.
Ten minutes later, he is in a French class at the comprehensive over the road. The children are taking turns to ask each other "Quelle est la date de ton anniversaire?" When Craig answers, his face distorted with the effort of it, the other children applaud. He collapses back on to his chair, beaming with relief.
The Heath School in Colchester, Essex, is an EBD school with a difference. As is usual for such places, the children, aged 11 to 16, have problems ranging from acute emotional disturbance to an inability to remain in their seats. Most have been permanently excluded from their old schools. But at the Heath, staff commitment to re-integrating pupils back into mainstream schooling is absolute, and their success is impressive. The process is made possible first by the good work done in-house, but second by close ties with the nearby Stanway School, where children can test the mainstream waters in a supportive environment. In the past two years, 11 pupils have completed the perilous journey from special school to full-time "ordinary" school. More than 50 have taken part in lessons at Stanway.
It was not ever thus at the Heath. When deputy head Alan Turnbull arrived four years ago, he found "the old maladjusted school model of containment and just occupying the kids during the day. The curriculum was sadly lacking. One or two took GCSEs in maths or art."
With support from new headteacher Corrina Creasy, Mr Turnbull broached the idea of radically improving the delivery of the national curriculum, and working towards re-integration. Staff, many of whom had worked there for more than a decade, were initially dubious.
"There is no point in imposing change," says Alan Turnbull. "I sowed the seeds of the idea, then sat back. I trod carefully for about a year, but asked everybody to produce national curriculum development statements, which they did." This was followed by extensive in-service training for staff on the curriculum, an area of strength for Essex County Council.
Eventually, says Alan Turnbull, "the curriculum did kick off, and both staff and pupils appreciated it. It became apparent that teachers were happier, because there was more purpose to their work, and more importantly more purpose for the kids." The comment "why do we have to do baby work?" is no longer heard around the Heath School.
Last autumn, inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education gave the school a luminous report. "The pupils generally achieve appropriate or better standards in English, design and technology, maths, physical education and science," they said. "Pupils' quality of learning was sound or better in 76 per cent of lessons observed." In some, teaching was described as "outstanding". How have individual teachers brought about such a sea change?
Don Curtis, 45, has taught at the Heath for 22 years. He welcomes the changes - brought about initially by the onset of the national curriculum, but greatly built upon in the changed philosophy of the school. Still, teaching English at GCSE level is challenging. "We've had difficulties," he says, "in finding the right kind of course. We need a vehicle that supplies success. Because, purely and simply, the children have failed. We have to make them feel good about themselves as students." Pupils, who spend considerable amounts of time catching up in spelling and reading, follow the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council English language syllabus and do not do a literature exam.
As part of his strategy, Don Curtis has concentrated on getting pupils to assess their own work. Classes have produced their own marking criteria, ranging from grade A for work in which "I produced neat, well-presented work, and did my best," to grade C for "I only did what I was asked and didn't extend myself" to E for "I chatted and played around and didn't really listen". Pupils, he says, are keen to get As and Bs and are more motivated when they have set the parameters for success themselves.
The reduced coursework element in GCSEs has not helped the Heath boys. "It puts our kids at a disadvantage," says Don Curtis, "because of the support you can give them in producing coursework. The pressure of an exam situation can work against our children, because of how they are." The school is looking with interest at the possibility of organising other forms of recognition for boys' work through General National Vocational Qualifications.
Janet Turnbull, married to Alan, also started work at the school four years ago. Now co-ordinator of the integration scheme, she teaches maths at the Heath and has introduced the School Maths Project (SMP). The small booklets she uses are not too daunting and the boys know that the same or similar work is done in mainstream schools. Her teaching works, she believes, through her high expectations of the children. "It's 'yes, you can do this work.' It's letting the children realise that they can be successful, and praising the success. "
With Year 7, completion of each SMP booklet wins the children individual certificates to show parents. "They want the parents to recognise that they're achieving," she says, "because they've gone through so many years of parents feeling that they weren't achieving anything."
In 1993, with the help of the school's educational psychologist, Mr Turnbull came up with a "model" for re-integration - named as the school's specialisation. On paper it is simple: identifying candidates suitable for re-integration, giving them experience at the Stanway - with the support of Heath staff - before choosing a mainstream school close to their home and gradually feeding them back into the system, with continued support from Heath staff, and working closely with parents.
In practice, of course, it's not quite so straightforward. Some pupils, says Robin Gibson, deputy head of Stanway, can't face crossing the threshold of a mainstream comprehensive. "We've had a number who have said they wanted to come across, got halfway, then turned back, saying they can't face it. There's a lack of confidence that they can actually come in and work with a class. It's often completely the opposite of what people think, that children over there are all tough and aggressive."
But, of the 45 pupils currently on roll at the Heath, Alan Turnbull hopes that more than one-third will re-integrate fully over the next two years. More than half of all pupils are likely to experience classes at Stanway.
Usually, they begin with PE. "It doesn't require too much background," says Robin Gibson, "and it's a subject that many of the youngsters over there are interested in taking at GCSE level. If you can get something that they're particularly interested in, then the transition is that much easier." If the PE participation is successful, pupils add on subjects such as maths, French and English.
A Heath teacher accompanies children into the classroom, on average for about half the time they spend there. While Craig was giving the date of his birthday in French, Janet Turnbull was sitting across the room with another group of children. Although she might work closely with a pupil on his homework out of class, or discuss specific problems with the teacher in the corridor or staffroom, she doesn't stick to the Heath child in class. "I don't sit with them," she says, "because that labels them in front of other pupils. That makes them special in an 'ordinary' school. My role is to support the teacher, and the whole class."
Janet Turnbull says that to see her working with another pupil can enhance the confidence of a Heath child. "They're often very worried that they'll go in and be the worst academically, which they never are. It helps raise their self-esteem to see that other pupils have problems which may be greater than theirs."
Pupils from the Heath take a "support diary" with them when they take part in Stanway lessons. Martin, 12, has just started doing PE. "V.v. good effort, " runs the comment for the tennis lesson. "Attentive and well-behaved." Part of the point of the diaries is to raise pupils' often minimal self-esteem. But they also aid communication between staff, on matters ranging from homework to behaviour. "I encourage form tutors to check the support diary daily," says Janet Turnbull. "Then the child will show the support diary on his return to the Heath. He gets to see the wonderful comments. And it encourages the teacher to think about how the child has been, and how he has worked."
How do staff at Stanway view the special school children? Robin Gibson, in charge of the co-operation between the two schools, is enthusiastic. "One of the reasons why I like doing what I'm doing is that I think it's essential, " he says. "If you put children in a special school then all of a sudden they're back in mainstream school, it's almost doomed to failure. Whereas this gives them a chance."
One or two of his colleagues are not so positive, mainly on the grounds that Heath children could damage Stanway's image. "I would rather say we are working properly with our whole community, and helping youngsters which is what we're in education for," says Mr Gibson. "And actually we're getting great advantages from them."
Staff at the Heath, with their expertise on behaviour management and building self-confidence, have given in-service training to Stanway staff, as well as advising on particular problems such as bullying and individual pupil's behaviour. There is a small crossover in teaching, with a maths teacher from Stanway teaching one session at the Heath, and a Heath teacher taking PE once a week at Stanway.
Stanway teachers have had to learn not to handle the Heath pupils with kid gloves. "I've always said to staff that you treat the Heath children like any other child," says Robin Gibson.
"The only difference being that if you have any difficulty you work through me or the Heath school rather than the parents."
If pupils cope well with Stanway, they, their parents and the Heath staff choose a mainstream school near their home. Re-integration is a gradual process, involving intensive work with the family and the new school. (More than half the Heath pupils are full-time boarders, and for some re-integrating into their family is more challenging than going back to school.) And it's expensive. Some schools, wary of the EBD label, ask for extensive support from the Heath. One head only accepted a boy on condition that a Heath teacher was in the school with him full-time, initially.
And while buoyed up by their OFSTED report, Heath staff are brought down by funding difficulties. Essex, strapped for cash like other authorities, is reluctant to fund the re-integration programme at the Pounds 65,000 Alan Turnbull says he needs. But without the teaching support that the money represents, children from the Heath have much less chance of leaving the closed world of the special school.