'It's about stopping the cycle. With good teaching these children can fly'

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Raised in a care home herself,former PE teacher Pam Redican (right) set up her own residential EBD special school. Elaine Williams meets her

Pam Redican, 50, is headteacher of Wings, a residential school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties near Kendal, Cumbria, which she set up herself and opened in May. She now has eight children aged 11 to 16 on her books, all local authority referrals, and intends to build up to 38.

Before setting up the school, she was head of Underley Hall, an EBD residential school in Carnforth, Cumbria, where Ofsted praised her for outstanding practice. In 2000, she gained a regional National Teaching Award for leadership.

Why be a headteacher?

She always claimed that if she won the lottery she would set up her own EBD school. She didn't win the lottery, but set one up anyway to cater for what she sees as a desperate need for EBD residential schooling. She spent the first 16 years of her life in care and understands what it is to be a frightened child, out of control.

Personal style?

Laughs a lot. Warm and open, but firm. Leads by example. Excellent teacher and listener. Demands the highest standards from staff and students.

In action Intends Wings to have outstanding provision. Already offers pupils 10 GCSEs with lots of activities such as singing, army cadets training, caring for animals, and trampolining - which she coaches personally, with students competing nationally. Allows pupils to choose the furniture in their bedrooms, which they are allowed to take with them when they leave ("when I left care I was given nothing but pound;10 in my pocket. I felt they were glad to get rid of me"). Keeps her office full of family photos so pupils know that one day they, too, can lead successful lives with a family to care for.

When I was 12 months old, I was taken away from my parents by court order.

I still bear the scars of physical abuse, and spent my life until I was 16 moving around between care homes in Liverpool and Cheshire, and various schools and foster families, many of them elderly, who died on me.

I was very unhappy. I remember crying in private. I had to put up with a lot of abusive situations, sexual, physical, emotional; care homes wouldn't get away with it these days. I was never hugged or kissed. Nobody cared about anything I achieved. I was good at sport, an 800-metres all-England schools runner. That helped me hold my own in school, but I came across as over-confident, a bit cocky, probably intimidating to teachers. That was just a front. Inside, I was constantly terrified of being rejected. I suppose I've used this insight to advantage in my professional life.

When a kid is strutting me, coming over all hard, I know I am looking at a petrified child. One teacher once said when I was being uppity: "Pam, you'll never achieve anything in life." That shut me up, but it also made me think. I couldn't stop thinking about it. It made me determined to be a PE teacher.

I got commendations for my teaching practice at college, despite being a single parent, and did well in my first post - although I had to travel to east London from Cheshire and was called a half-caste cow by the black children and a black cow by the whites. I'd never experienced racial abuse in the North-west, but I got in there and won them round.

No matter where, kids respond to good teaching and strong discipline. I'm very firm. I make things clear, kids know exactly where they stand. In a way, my earlier life was like a training session for working with difficult children. I know they can achieve high standards and I expect it of them. I worked for 13 years in an EBD school in Cheshire and my students regularly got Cs and above in sciences, and I regularly had them competing at the national schools trampolining championships. I loved the fact that this small EBD school was turning out champions.

Trampolining is a fast fixer. It's good for those who can't cope at first with team sports, and you can be doing somersaults and looking really good within a few sessions. It's all about good teaching and building up trust and relationships. I met my husband there, he was an art teacher and we were both headhunted as heads to the Underley private residential EBD schools, and went through two excellent Ofsteds.

But I'd always dreamed of having my own school, of creating a centre of excellence. One of my former pupils who was very successful, who left school with GCSEs and went into an apprenticeship, was killed in a road accident. I was devastated, but that was the deciding factor. I have this catch phrase - "just do it". I always tell my pupils they have a choice - to make a go of things, or wallow. Matthew's death made me realise you cannot wait to fulfil your ambitions. You never know what's round the corner.

I know there is a need for very good provision, particularly for girls, as well as a post-16 unit because so many young people just fall off the end of the cliff once they leave at that age. I was turning away hundreds when I was at Underley. Inclusion for me is the culprit. It has made the situation so much worse. It's unfair to expect mainstream schools to cope with such a disruptive element and it's grossly unfair on the young people themselves.

We are fools to think you can include everybody. Many EBD children have difficulties created by their family environment, so what makes us think that a 9am-3.30pm mainstream setting with 35 other kids can be effective? Giving them a support assistant only makes them feel more marked. Their needs span 24 hours and inclusion only exacerbates the problem.

A lot of children who have been through my schools get qualifications and jobs, and have their own children who don't end up in EBD schools. It's about stopping the cycle. With good teaching these children can fly.

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