Moot points

17th January 1997 at 00:00
The silence at the start of each day in a Salisbury pupil referral unit has become an 'important ritual of calm'. Diana Hinds reports

For the pupils and staff of the John Ivie Centre, a pupil referral unit in Salisbury, each day begins in silence. For several minutes, seated in a circle, each person collects his or her thoughts before making a contribution to the "Moot", as it is known, telling the others something of what they are feeling. For many of the pupils, this is little more than a grudging "I'm John and I'm fine", or a growled "I'm Graham and I've got a stinking cold"; but 10-year-old Fiona, at the unit because of medical problems, this morning shares welcome news of the birth of her baby brother.

The principle of the Moot, as 15-year-old Chris Webb puts it, is that "you let it all out before you start the day". It is an important ritual of calm, setting the tone for the daily work of this unit which seeks to teach and help troubled or unruly pupils who cannot be taught in school and, where possible, to reintegrate them in mainstream education.

Headteacher Charon Boakes says it is difficult for pupils to step outside the calm and respectful environment without drawing attention to themselves. She admits she expected more trouble than there has been in the year since the centre opened - so far there have been no serious incidents or fights.

Difficult or challenging behaviour in class is dealt with by a system of orange cards imposed much as in a football match. Two orange cards mean temporary withdrawal from the lesson, and this, by and large, is as bad as it gets.

Nor has there been any vandalism in a building markedly more attractive than many pupil referral units, which are often housed in portable classrooms or scruffy classrooms not needed by schools.

"When you are working with children like these with very low self-esteem, you have to present the right sort of environment," says Peter Davies, the centre's founder who went out of his way to persuade Wiltshire County Council to refurbish it to a high standard. "I am convinced that this unit is so calm and orderly directly as a result of the environment we created."

Inside, the building is light and bright, with comfortable chairs, good quality office furniture and plants on every available ledge. And as well as a playground area for football and basketball, there is a garden designed and planted by the pupils, with science area, pond and barbeque. The charity Learning Through Landscapes was consulted and encouraged the idea that pupils feel a sense of ownership of "their place".

Staff and younger pupils eat lunch together at round pine tables, in an attempt to create a sense of "family". And for those who need some time on their own to cool off, or reflect, there is the respite room - or "fish tank" - a small windlowless room decorated by them with aquatic murals.

Small groups of pupils, with plenty of adults to listen to them, are fundamental to making the unit work, says Charon Boakes. "It's not that there isn't respect in mainstream schools, but because of the numbers, teachers can't communicate on such a personal level. The youngsters we have here demand a lot of attention."

There are four main groups at the John Ivie Centre, organised into classes no bigger than eight, and with usually at least two adults - teacher and education support assistant - in every lesson. Fifteen and 16-year-olds make up the first group who are working towards GCSEs and who may go on to college.

Group two are boys who have fallen behind academically but who are being prepared for jobs. Group three are 12 to 14-year-olds, many with behavioural problems, but who may only be at the centre six weeks before being reintegrated at school. Group four is a small group of primary-age children. Others, doing five hours a week "home tuition" after being excluded from school, use the centre for their tuition, making a current total of 72 "clients", full-time and part-time.

Apart from group two, John Ivie pupils follow the national curriculum. There are specially-equipped classrooms for science, maths, English, art and French, as well as PE in a nearby park. But, unusually for a pupil referral unit, one-to-one therapeutic counselling is also on offer, with independent counsellors paid for not by the education authority but out of a voluntary fund.

This began as a personal enthusiasm of Peter Davies, a trained counsellor as well as a teacher, but it has gained in popularity to the extent that at least half the pupils now opt for it - one hour a week, for at least six weeks - and some schools refer children to the John Ivie Centre for the counselling alone.

"At first I thought they would sit in the room and wonder when something was going to happen," says Peter Davies. "But they have identified that they have something they want to work on - it may be their anger, or not wanting to go to school - and that this hour is for them to talk about it and understand it better: they really seem to cotton on to that."

Heidi Cochlan, who works at the centre, has been a counsellor for nine years. She says that most of the children "have never been listened to. It takes a lot of courage for them to accept that they need some sort of help, and they have got to want to do it. But once that barrier is down, they are then fairly easy to work with."

Sometimes, she says, they find it difficult to talk. Occasionally children have sat in silence for two sessions, before finding anything to say, "and that's very frustrating - you begin to think there must be something wrong with you".

But therapy is not to the taste of all 14 and 15-year-old boys. Several say they don't go because they don't need to. But 15-year-old Ben Thompson, about to start at a new school after six months at the centre, has recently started counselling and has requested to carry on with it after he leaves.

"I was a bit wary about it, but I have found it really useful. I'm getting used to facing up to things," he says. "I'm quite happy about going back to school, because I want to get a proper education, and there's only so much you can do here. I've got more manners and more behaviour than I did before. But I will miss the atmosphere here, and the respect."

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