Just champion

14th January 2000 at 00:00
The charity Kidscape will next week honour people who have 'done something amazing to help children'. Wendy Wallace meets three of them.

Three hundred and sixty five Children's Champions will be honoured next week by the children's charity, Kidscape. Chosen by an eclectic panel that includes Education Secretary David Blunkett, Spice Girl Mel G, childcare author Penelope Leach and children's rights lawyer Allan Levy QC, the winners have all "done something amazing to help children".

"So often we pick up the phone and there are sad stories of abuse and bullying," says Gaby Shenton, assistant director of Kidscape. "It's important to look at all the good that is being done as well."

The winners come from all walks of life. They range from psychiatrist Dora Black, who works with children who have seen one of their parents murder the other, to Brian Fletcher in Sheffield, who has fostered 73 children. A quarter of the 8,000 nominees are teachers or support staff, and around 20 per cent of the nominations came from children, partly as a result of the 3,500 posters that went up in schools all over the country. With pound;100,000 in sponsorship from Del Monte this year, Kidscape hopes the awards will keep going.

Winners will attend a "celebrity and celebrating" lunch at the Millennium Dome on Monday, where they will be addressed by Home Secretary Jack Straw and pick up a goody bag of champagne and chocolates. "We're trying to make it as open, accommodating and feel-good as possible," says Gaby Shenton. "Nobody is celebrating people who champion children, we don't have a minister for children in England, and sometimes we're neglectful of children's rights. These people offer a shining example."

David Blunkett, who helped to judge the education-related nominations, has a particular sympathy for Kidscape's anti-bullying work. He told the charity that he broke his hand punching a bully at school and was amazed when he was singled out for punishment. He also intervened personally again last year after hearing about bullying from a child at a Kidscape conference - this time, though, he lifted the phone.

June Heath June Heath, 54, is senior midday supervisor at Plumstead Manor school in south-east London. She has worked at the school for 22 years, keeping order over lunch hours and providing a listening ear. "I try and be like a mum to all the girls," she says. "I just let them talk."

Pupils come to June Heath with problems ranging from being bullied to having swallowed a gobstopper. One girl from a Muslim family had shaved under her arms against her parent's wishes and nicked her skin, and the wound had become infected. "She was unable to put her arms down by her sides. I helped her clean it up and encouraged her to tell her mum."

June Heath's technique, she says, is to "talk the children's language, say simple things that they'll remember". Senior teacher Angela Saunders says support staff at the 1,500-pupil school have a vital pastoral role. "They are the children's confidants because they see them at lunchtime when the atmosphere is relaxed, and that sort of relationship leads to pupils feeling able to talk about things. Some children have had to fight tooth and nail for survival outside school. They come in with a lot of baggage."

June Heath is particularly proud of having helped a pupil come to terms with being sexually abused. "I knew there was something wrong but I didn't know what. She kept crying all the time and wouldn't leave my side. She was like a hurt puppy. Eventually one lunchtime she told me she was being abused by a member of her family. She was only 12 and she thought it was all right."

Although this happened 20 years ago, June Heath still finds the memory traumatic. "I knew it was wrong but I was so green on what to do. I gave her a lot of love and let her talk. Then I went with her to the deputy head to help her say what was happening. She got a lot of help, and she stayed on in the school. I was very affected at the time. I was angry with myself, because I wanted to help but didn't know what to do."

June Heath has had other pupils disclosing sexual abuse since then, and has been trained in how to respond. "I lead them in the right direction. I do it very differently now. I've never got so personally involved as I did the first time," she says. "I still see that girl around the local area and we have a chat. She's all right now."

jim wood Jim Wood, 44, is project manager at the Students Into Schools project, based at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and backed by the local training and enterprise council. He became aware of the benefits of peer tutoring over 15 years of teaching in comprehensives in the city. "We had Year 10 low achievers supporting Year 7 pupils, and both were benefiting. For the older children who'd been switched off learning, it was an opportunity to show that they could actually do something. And it scrambled the minds of the younger students, because here were the supposed drop-outs helping them to do maths."

Jim Wood has managed the Students Into Schools initiative for the last seven years, sending students from Newcastle and Northumbria universities to work with school pupils of all ages. "The idea was to raise the achievement levels and aspirations of pupils by presenting them with positive role models. And the gains for students are in transferable skills - communication, working with others, problem-solving."

Five hundred students are currently taking part in "subject-focused support", mainly in secondary schools; three-quarters stand to gain academic credits for their efforts.

Jim Wood has also become involved in the National Student Mentoring pilot project set up by Michael Barber of the schools standards and effectiveness unit at the DfEE. University students are paid pound;5 an hour to see four pupils once a week for an hour. The pupils have been selected from schools in education action zones, and the focus of the relationship is on mentoring rather than tutoring.

"It's young people getting a lot out of young people," says Jim Wood. "It sounds a bit Walt Disney-ish, but that's what the job's about - giving young people responsibility and showing you have confidence in them. You guarantee that the students benefit and you hope that the pupils will."

One successful partnership under the Students Into Schools umbrella was between a second-year English literature student and a pupil with special needs. The pupil was mainly mute in class, although she sometimes used sign language or whispered. After a year working with the student, she began to talk.

Jim Wood is quietly pleased to have been named a children's champion. "You work away at your own little piece of turf, and it's nice to have something come through which says you're doing good work," he says.

ScottJeneary Scott Jeneary, 35, is head of performing arts at the American School in London (ASL). He won a Children's Champion award for leading the development of an extraordinary relationship between pupils at the pound;15,000-a-year school and their rather less advantaged neighbours at Kilburn Park, a small junior school ringed by tower blocks less than a mile to the west of the ASL campus.

The contrast between the two schools could not be more marked. ASL pupils are without exception from privileged, high-achieving backgrounds. They give the impression of being tall, confident, gilded youth with the world at their feet. Children at Kilburn Park have grown in very different soil; half have English as a second language and many emigrated from troubled areas. Two-thirds are entitled to free school meals, and streets around the school are riddled with crime and drugs.

Two hundred ASL students are involved in the Kilburn Park club, which offers a wide range of activities. At its core is an after-school club at the primary school staffed by ASL pupils. The atmosphere on a dim Thursday afternoon is happy. Big kids and small ones sit around a table cutting shapes in sugar-paper and talking about pop music and football. Michael Benz, 18, who starred in the children's television series Mike and Angelo, works quietly at a screen in a corner of the room with two Year 6 pupils.

Ishmael Rose, aged 10, comes to the after school club every day. "It's cool," he says. "All the people from the American School are all right and they're friendly. They're always happy and never sad." ASL students enjoy the interaction too. "I've got a lot out of this programme by way of helping kids," says 17-year-old Lucy Bennett, originally from Los Angeles, who has been involved in the club for the last three years.

ASL students tutor Kilburn Park children in co-operation with class teachers, or just play and talk with them. Under the overall leadership of the mild-mannered but highly committed Scott Jeneary, ASL students also organise football matches for Kilburn Park students, take them to shows at the school and in the West End, go pond-dipping and donate quantities of high-quality cast-offs ranging from Apple Macs to the tropical fish tank that enlivens the entrance to the school.

But charity is not always comfortable for the recipients. "Failure was assumed," says 18-year-old Greg Copeland, student leader of the club and one of two American students involved from the start, five years ago. "It can be difficult to help people. You're resented for the fact that you have resources, and they don't like you." The nationality difference helps take the edge off the starkness of the inequality, and defuses class issues, but the relationship between the two schools works because of the commitment of Kilburn Park's headteacher, Marjory Condon, Scott Jeneary says.

Interaction with Kilburn Park pupils has been an eye-opening experience for ASL pupils. "We're able to provide experiences for these students that they're not going to get any other way", says Scott Jeneary. "It's life-changing stuff." It could be either school population that he is talking about.

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