'Hosting' is sending a boy or girl to a different school where nobody except a few teachers is told of their past. It doesn't always work. But it's the last-ditch option for children who are about to drop out of mainstream education entirely.
After all, the most troublesome youngsters can sometimes be victims of their own persona at a particular school. Hosting can give them a fresh start - without sending them down a year and without peers holding them back by assuming they're trouble makers. Julie Morrice reports.
Not for the first time, government strategy presents schools with a dilemma - how to follow the ethos of inclusion for difficult pupils and improve the attainment of the whole school at the same time. It is the problem at the heart of state schooling.
The spectre of the disaffected, violent, drug-peddling pupil makes parents move house, or mortgage themselves to pay for private education. And the daily reality of disruption in the classroom drives teachers to despair or early retirement.
There are no easy answers. "Exclusion is virtually being outlawed," says Pat Sweeney, headteacher of Holy Rood High in Edinburgh, "and the provision to replace it is sometimes inadequate, and often patchy." He chooses his words carefully as he considers the much vaunted alternatives-to-exclusion programme. "There are various initiatives," he concedes, "but gaps remain."
In the north-east of Edinburgh self-help is providing one way forward. The six secondary schools in the neighbourhood - Drummond, Trinity, Leith, Castlebrae, Holy Rood and Portobello - are pursuing a co-operative approach to pupils with severe problems. The approach, called "hosting", was originally introduced in West Lothian by the then depute head of St Margaret's Academy, Livingston, and later adopted across the former Lothian Region. It is a straightforward strategy, but it can have remarkable results.
Take the example of a boy at an Edinburgh secondary. His low-grade misbehaviour had graduated to verbal and physical abuse of staff and serious damage to property. He caused such antagonism among the staff that the headteacher was virtually unable to retain the boy at school.
In the bad old days, the pupil might well have found himself excluded from school and struggling to find another school willing to accept him onto its roll. But this boy was lucky.
He was given the chance to start afresh at a different school on the "hosting" scheme, while still remaining on the roll at his original one. Two terms on he has not posed any serious difficulties to the host school. He is likely to stay there to complete his education - and switch to the new school roll. The situation, in one case at least, has been defused.
"It's important to stress that hosting arrangements are made not only for disruptive pupils," says Fiona Fraser, assistant head of Drummond Community High School in Edinburgh. Hosting has been used at Drummond for habitual non-attenders and for cases where a parent requests a change of school but the school thinks it would be better to have continuity of support. It has also been used for pupils making the step from special to mainstream education.
In all cases the hosting is a short-term, renewable arrangement. The base school remains responsible for the pupil. There is regular liaison between the two schools, the parents and other agencies such as social work. And participating schools have extra support - an 0.3 post to help manage the hosting scheme.
Practices differ in different schools. But in almost all cases hosting is a last resort, only suggested after the base school has tried every other form of support. "We use every device in the book," says Pat Sweeney, "alternative curricula, alternative timetables, anger management, counselling, learning support, isolation and part-time teaching".
But when all else has failed, a pupil may just respond to the chance to start again - away from the influence and pressure of a peer group that has fixed him in a troublesome persona. The most crucial element of hosting is that pupils at the host school have no preconceptions about the new arrival. Pupils can reinvent themselves, and realise it is possible to change their response to school.
Any pupil offered a hosted place at Drummond will be invited to bring their parents to a meeting with guidance staff from both schools and other agencies involved in his case. The pupil will be asked to sign a contract with Drummond. It may be a simple agreement to abide by school rules, or it may be tailored to an individual case. One boy signed a variety of clauses, including an agreement to "try my best at German".
The hosting will begin with a six week period during which staff will be asked to fill out regular reports on the pupil's progress. The guidance teacher and year head will keep an overall view of the situation.
After six weeks there will be another meeting to assess whether the hosting is working. It will then be decided whether the pupil should stay on at Drummond or return to his base school. In some cases a successful hosting will iron out a problem and the pupil can return to his base school after only a few weeks. In other situations the pupil will stay on at the host school to complete his education.
"We try very very hard to make these hosting placements work," says Fiona Fraser. As a small school with a roll of less than 500, Drummond is perceived as a good host school, particularly for school refusers. "It is very time-consuming for guidance staff, but parents are usually very supportive and keen for it to work. One of the most horrible things I have to do is phone parents and say it hasn't worked, especially if it is the end of the line for their child."
The school has hosted 13 pupils in the past two years. Six are still at Drummond. The rest were unsuccessful and the pupils have returned to their base school.
Of the five Drummond pupils hosted elsewhere, four have been unsuccessful and have come back. "We now very rarely exclude pupils," says Fraser. "We would try everything to maintain a pupil in mainstream or special school before resorting to exclusion."
At present the hosting scheme is managed on an ad hoc basis, with assistant heads simply phoning up a school they consider suitable and asking if they can take a particular pupil. The recent initiative to appoint a co-ordinator for the scheme arose at school level. The post is paid for through the Government's Excellence Fund.
"I thought: 'Let's get this money out to the schools'," says Pat Sweeney. "We don't need conferences and reports on exclusion, we want to use funding effectively to reduce exclusions in schools."
He hopes the new co-ordinator, the principal teacher of guidance at Leith Academy, will put the arrangements on a more formal footing and have the time to match the individual needs of pupils to the most suitable provision. Pat Sweeney also wants to see the burden of hosting spread evenly across all the neighbourhood schools, so no one school is expected to carry an unfair share.
"You can become a victim of your own success," says Sweeney. "We are probably perceived as having high standards of behaviour, and parents have been known to say they want their child sent to Holy Rood for that reason. There is a strong spirit of pastoral care within the entire staff, and we have close monitoring of pupils with problems. But the suggestion that schools can contain every possible eventuality is very optimistic.
"Hosting won't work for every pupil in every situation. It can't solve the problem of seriously violent or delinquent behaviour. The bottom line is that parents expect schools to be safe and free of violence, and classes to be free of interruption. And we are determined to provide that."
Stuart (not his real name) is 14. He was first hosted by Holy Rood over a year ago, after two years at a special school.
"He's an attention-seeker," says his aunt, who has looked after him since he was five. "He couldn't cope with large classes. He was loud and disruptive."
Now, says Stuart's headteacher, he turns up on time, wears his uniform and waits in the queue for his lunch. It may not sound like a great achievement, but Stuart's aunt is pleased with his progress and grateful that he has stayed in mainstream education.
When his behaviour broke down after several months at Holy Rood, she insisted she wasn't happy about Stuart going back to special school. She keeps in close contact with teachers at Holy Rood. "They know that if there's any problem, I'm just a phone call away. I get a regular update from learning support. With the other school, I didn't find out about problems until two weeks later."
Close monitoring and good support structures have worked for Stuart. "At Holy Rood he's been a lot better - they're a lot stricter," his aunt says. And the different peer group is a plus. "He feels part of the group. They're not slagging him for being different. Who knows what he'd have been into if he'd stayed at the other school. It's not plain sailing yet, but it's better than it was."
Stuart is quietly non-committal about Holy Rood, but concedes he likes two of the teachers and the head. "He likes me. He looks after me," Stuart says.