High hope

4th December 1998 at 00:00
St Matthew's Roman Catholic High in New Moston, north-east Manchester, takes most of its 1,000 pupils from sprawling housing estates, including one that is on the Government's list of the ten worst in Britain. The area has one of the highest youth crime, drugs and under-age pregnancy rates in Europe; exactly the kind of place where you would expect the local schools to have high numbers of exclusions.

But when the Office for Standards in Education stung Manchester education officials with fierce criticism of their provision for excluded pupils, the local authority retaliated by holding up St Matthew's unit for disruptive pupils as an example of the best kind of work that can be done for disaffected students.

The success of the unit, called the Phoenix Centre, can be gauged by the figures. In the term before the Phoenix was opened, the school had six permanent and between 90 and 100 fixed-term exclusions. But in the two years the unit has been running there has been just one permanent exclusion, and short-term exclusions have been halved. Of 40 pupils referred, 34 have successfully returned to mainstream classes, and those classes are no longer disrupted.

Now the unit's pioneering work has earned it Millennium Product status. It joins a growing list, chosen by the Design Council, of the best of British products and services, some of which will be exhibited in the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, south-east London.

The Phoenix Centre is housed in a small brick building next to a greenhouse - indeed, it was once the school's potting shed. It is warm and comfortable, carpeted throughout and pleasantly decorated. There is an L-shaped workspace and a room for counselling, and the views from the window are not distracting.

"It is our basic duty to keep every child in school to gain a mainstream education," says the school's headteacher, Brian McNulty.

"When a child is excluded, we have failed to provide that education - that's where we started from. The Phoenix Centre evolved from systems we had tried before, but they were sporadic and some children needed continuous monitoring. We needed a full-time system.

"The usual model for a unit is to have it staffed by two or three strong teachers, but we wanted to deliver the national curriculum. So nearly 20 experienced, specialist teachers are timetabled to work in the Phoenix. "

The centre costs Pounds 40,000 a year to run but could be managed with Pounds 30,000, says Brian McNulty. Funding for this and the past two financial years has come from the Department for Education, but will stop next July. He hopes that the publicity surrounding the unit's Millennium Product status will help to bring in money from elsewhere.

The Phoenix Centre is run by co-ordinator Fionnuala Murden, who is supported by counsellor and mentor Margery Ball. Almost one third of the school's mainstream staff will teach their subjects in the unit. Up to 10 pupils at a time can be catered for, but the usual number is four or five.

The referral process begins when a child's behaviour, which is recorded in a log book, is seen to be stopping their education or the education of others. Year tutors contact the child's parents and daily contracts are drawn up. If that fails, the child is referred to the centre. Parents are contacted again and an interview is set up, in which both the child and the parents have to agree to try the Phoenix. The only alternative is long-term and then permanent exclusion. Only one pupil has chosen that route in the past two years.

The regime is firm rather than tough, but the atmosphere is supportive. School work has to be done, and aspects of unruly behaviour are tackled with specific daily and weekly targets: "avoid asking unnecessary questions"; "stay in school all day, every day"; "work in silence unless told otherwise". The children learn how to cope in the classroom and how to work. Progress is rewarded with credits and laudatory letters sent to the children's homes.

Pupils usually spend three, sometimes four, weeks in the centre. If a child reaches a fourth week there is a growing sense of urgency to get back to normal classes: nobody wants to be the longest Phoenix resident.

Another incentive for returning to mainstream classes is to be with friends again. Although breaks and lunchtimes are taken together, as are school and year group assemblies, the Phoenix pupils, particularly the older ones, miss the regular corridor and classroom camaraderie of their peer group.

Younger pupils who have difficulty settling into the school can also use the centre, and the staff provide a valuable "listening service". Unhappy children have been known to go over to the Phoenix rather than hide or run away from school.

"It isn't always the disruptive child who needs the centre," says Fionnuala Murden. "It may be a child with low self-esteem, a child who is crying in class."

Margery Ball counsels pupils, supports them back in mainstream classes, and visits their parents. "A lot of parents had problems themselves when they were at school," she explains. "If they come to school, they are on edge, ill at ease. At home they are relaxed and I get them to realise that they are not the only parents who have children with problems. It makes a tremendous difference if the child can see the school and the parent working together. It's not 'them and us' any more."

The route back into mainstream education is gradual and is tailored to suit each child; he or she may go back for one lesson or three or four. A favourite lesson is chosen to begin with, but soon less popular ones have to be attended. Behaviour is monitored for as long as is necessary. Some pupils may need a return visit, but that is not regarded as a backward step.

There are many examples of wild, apparent no-hopers who have left the unit, settled down and achieved results. Seventeen-year-old Pauline Richardson, for example, had a volatile reputation, but she now has seven GCSEs and is flourishing at a nearby sixth-form college.

"I had to go back in the Phoenix again because I was messing about," she says, "and then one day it just came to me. I just wasn't getting anywhere,I was falling behind. I wanted to get out and not come back in. Now, I'm proud of myself."

Teachers have noticed that pupils returning after a period at the centre are able to take criticism better, accept discipline and know how to receive a compliment. Rob Wall, a drama and English teacher, believes a fundamental change takes place.

"It's an attitude thing," he says. "It may sound corny, but because they work in such close proximity to the teachers, they start to understand that teachers are human. They're not someone authoritarian standing at the front, they're someone who is interested in getting them to learn. They understand why discipline is necessary."

Maths teacher Alison Gee says that in mainstream classes the disruptive behaviour of a child can distort the teacher's perception of what the child can do. "But when they're back in class after some time at the centre, we know their abilities better and can say 'Hey, come on, I know what you're capable of'."

Motivated mainstream pupils, who perhaps suffer most from classroom disruption, have also been supportive. Comments such as "Wow! I didn't know Ryan had a brain!" might make adults cringe, but they reveal much about the importance of peer acceptance, belonging and self-worth.


An immediate but unexpected benefit from the Phoenix Centre, says headteacher Brian McNulty, is that the mainstream teachers who are timetabled to work there are picking up personal relationship techniques from dealing with difficult children; techniques they usually have no time to develop in mainstream classes.

And the mainstream teachers who do not teach in the centre are also picking up tips. They see how the children are supported by their mentor when they return to class. The support may be a word of encouragement two or three times during the lesson, something which the mainstream teachers will start doing themselves with the ex-Phoenix pupils.

Fionnuala Murden believes that disruptive children need to know where "the line" of acceptable behaviour is, and they need to know what is expected of them. Key points to consider are: * parents do care, but many of them don't know how to show it. They need help with parenting; * disruptive children are not impossible to deal with, but some will always need support. A safety net is vital; * set simple, short-term targets for them and be prepared to negotiate. "Work in silence for 10 minutes, then I'll let you talk"; * be fair and positive. Children will always respond to honesty, even when a teacher says, "Hey, you can do better than that!"; * don't write off a disruptive child. There are no no-hopers, there is always an angle to work on.


* Lilliput Nursery, York: a modular nursery building, designed from the child's viewpoint, with stimulating spaces and features * RM Maths Learning System: a software package to support teaching numeracy skills to primary schoolchildren * Tesco Schoolnet 2000: the world's largest Internet-based educational project * Living Library by RM: a source bank of reference material, archives and pictures * Gallery Guide MPEG by Arts Communication and Technology: the world's first portable audio CD-Rom design to help visitors explore museums and galleries * The Dorcas Project by the Dog Rose Trust: an interactive tactile plan and commentary on art, architecture and displays, for the visually impaired * Turning the Pages by the British Library: computer animation and touch-screen technology to simulate the experience of turning the pages of treasured books * OptiMusic by OptiMusic: a musical instrument played by moving hands across light beams, used for entertainment, rehabilitation and education Millennium Products Web site: www.millennium-products.org.uk

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