Inclusion unit with a lot of bottle

2nd March 2012 at 00:00
A project in Dunfermline is having a postive impact on attendance, learning and behaviour, says Raymond Ross

"Every school should have one" is the ready chorus of everyone involved (pupils, staff and outside agencies) in Dunfermline High's Apex inclusion unit.

"I was going to get drunk on Friday night," says one pupil, "and then I remembered what we were talking about in inclusion, about being vulnerable and about your criminal record not getting wiped when you're 16, and I thought it wasn't worth it.

"I want to be an engineer, so it's not worth risking your future for a bottle of Buckfast. When me and my friends get drunk, someone always ends up fighting. So it's not worth it. I stayed sober," he says.

Set up in 2007 to counter the adverse effects of excluding pupils from class - on both the pupils themselves and on the wider community - the unit was highly praised in a recent HMI report for its positive impact on pupils' learning, attendance and behaviour.

"We wanted to promote `inclusion' in its broadest sense and to retain pupils in school by offering both meaningful course work and intensive behaviour counselling and guidance," says depute headteacher Louise Ramsay.

"We entered into a partnership with the voluntary sector, criminal justice organisation Apex Scotland, which has over 20 years' experience in providing services to offenders, ex-offenders and young people at risk. Our unit was a `first' for them, for us and for any mainstream school in Scotland - and it remains unique as the only on-site unit of its kind in the country," says Mrs Ramsay.

The unit's success can be measured in a number of different ways but perhaps the most apparent and pertinent is the dramatic drop in school exclusion rates, which fell by 52 per cent in its first year (from 236 to 114) and by a further 20 per cent the following year.

But it would be wrong to look at such figures andor measure the success of the Apex unit in isolation, insists headteacher Brian Blanchflower.

"It's part of our holistic approach, which focuses on engaging all pupils with the school, and as our exclusion figures continue to diminish we can also say, for example, that last session 97 per cent of our leavers achieved a positive destination in terms of training, employment or continuing education, 77 per cent of them going into either FE or HE," he says.

The figures are undoubtedly impressive, especially given that Dunfermline High's catchment area is very much a mixed one and includes what Mr Blanchflower calls "pockets of extreme deprivation".

"This holistic approach, and its success, might also be illustrated by the 390 accredited achievement awards, outwith SQA qualifications, which were gained by our young people in 2010-11 - including everything from Prince's Trust awards, Sports Leadership and Youth Achievement awards to Nuffield Gold Crest Awards for science and rockschool and Trinity Jazz awards," he says.

There is no doubt, however, that it is the Apex unit which is truly groundbreaking, and which is now being rolled to two other Fife schools, Lochgelly High, and Kirklands High in Methil.

Pupils work within the unit during the normal school day, continuing curricular work supplied by their class teachers, with a myriad of activities aimed at promoting social inclusion and improved choices.

As an alternative to exclusion, they spend a full school day here, up to a maximum of 10 days and, as part of a "Focus on your Future" programme, they attend the unit for two hours per week for six weeks. One-to-one counselling is also offered and the unit operates an open-door policy, so that individual pupils can come in for advice or support.

Spending an hour or so in the unit with half-a-dozen pupils in the company of Karen Pryde, Apex schools services development officer for Scotland, and Lynne Proctor, Dunfermline High's inclusion coordinator, you are struck by the inclusive ethos, the warmth, sense of mutual respect and positivity.

Admittedly, best behaviour will always be to the fore when pupils are entertaining guests - and they're well used now to visits from MSPs and MPs. But there is a clarity and honesty, and plenty of banter, as they sit discussing life choices, experiences and misdemeanours ranging from alcohol and drugs misuse to fire-raising, fighting, anger management, curfews, the Children's Panel, work experience, ambitions, family problems, peer pressure and educational opportunities.

What is perhaps most striking is the sense of pride and ownership the pupils have. It's their haven, their platform and, hopefully, their launch pad. There's no sense of exclusion at all.


Claire, an S4 pupil, says: "I was in and out of here from S1 to S3, including many one-to-ones, because of my temper, my violence. Coming here made me care about my life and school grades. I'm now a peer mentor and the younger ones listen to me.

"I'm trying to get them to realise that what they're doing in wrong behaviour will get them nowhere. I've done it and they can see I know what I'm talking about.

"They respect you in the unit and make you feel good about yourself. But you have to earn the respect and give respect back.

"It's an open door and you can come back any time for advice about school or family or whatever; and they help you because they want to, not because they have to.

"I feel at home with Karen and Lynne and now I'm going to go to college to do hairdressing. That's what I really want to do."

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