'No' is an opportunity to try a different way

1st June 2001 at 01:00
In a recent report, Her Majesty's inspectors emphasised the need to retain disruptive pupils in the education system without damaging the academic chances of their fellow pupils. Raymond Ross reports on two schemes to provide alternatives to exclusion

We're a school, not a sin-bin," says Allan MacLaughlan, headteacher of Burnhouse School in Whitburn, West Lothian. "This is not a base. It's an SQA presenting centre. It's not a unit or a hub. It's a school. It has an education focus first and foremost."

Burnhouse was set up in 1997 with social inclusion funding. It draws its pupils from across the local authority and is central to its alternatives to exclusion policy.

"Without us, these kids would be excluded from mainstream education altogether," says Alison Cousar, the school's staff development officer for behaviour, who also teaches science.

"All our pupils have records of needs and individual education programmes. There's a base in all West Lothian secondaries. We're a step on from that."

The school has 36 pupils ranging from Primary 67 to Secondary 5 Christmas leavers. With a teaching staff of eight and a further support staff of 11, it presents pupils for Standard grades in English, maths, science and social and vocational studies.

The recent HMI report Alternatives to Exclusion, which emphasises the need for schools to minimise exclusion for disruptive pupils while ensuring the effective education of others is not disrupted, describes Burnhouse as "a new off-site facility I to fill a major gap identified in the range of resources available to the authority".

The minute you walk into the building, the school strikes you as lively and colourful, with murals and noticeboards created by community artist Nancy Douglas and the pupils. The ethos is positive and caring from the moment morning assembly begins, with the serious issues of the day delivered and debated with no lack of humorous banter.

Mr MacLaughlan welcomes the thrust of the report to bring down the number of school exclusions, saying: "I don't think that's a job for individual schools on their own. Schools have their role but it's really a job for local authorities."

As the first head at the school, he believes the success of Burnhouse is based on two factors: the local authority's commitment to it from the outset and its allowing him time to find "the right staff".

He says: "I have a brilliant staff, who work far more than their hours. Get the right staff and everything cascades from that. These are people handpicked through a lengthy process."

In this kind of teaching, where the pupils have already been labelled "disruptive" or "difficult", personality counts in a big way.

"A lot of teachers say they'd hate it here and they think the kids are swinging from the light bulbs," says Ms Cousar.

"You have to be on for a laugh with these pupils. But you have to be thick-skinned as well as humorous and you need perseverance. If they say 'No' - and it may be said in a less polite way - you have to say 'Really?' You have to see 'no' as an opportunity to try again or to try in a different way. These kids respond to personality."

In classroom management at Burnhouse, a teacher has to be more flexible than in a mainstream school.

"You can't teach like a normal teacher," says Ms Cousar. "You have to speak to them on their own more, give more visual and oral material, rather than writing down all the time. You have to make them feel better about themselves and that means giving them work which is appropriate to them."

The Burnhouse pupils see themselves as failures when they first arrive, says Mr MacLaughlan, and he sees the school's purpose as convincing them that they have value in themselves.

"There are no conscripts here," he says. "A pupil must want to come. One pupil took six visits here before deciding to come.

"One result is that we have a high attendance rate."

The school ethos is very much one of positive behaviour. The work is based on the pupils' individual education programmes and on a partnership with both the pupils and their parents or carers.

The positive behaviour scheme uses targets agreed with pupils at each review (recorded in their individual education programmes) and results in the presentation of certificates for achieving these targets over the school year. There are also certificates presented each week to pupils who have had the best behaviour in certain categories, such as best assembly (either for presentation or behaviour), best computer operator and best playground behaviour.

Each pupil has a diary planner which they must have with them at all times. This records targets achieved in all classes every day and explains everything from transport arrangements to the school's code of conduct, school uniform requirements, the daily points sheet, target setting and the positive behaviour scheme.

As the diary also contains the pupil's bus pass - a clever strategic move - it cannot be left at home. It also contains a "contract" with his or her parents or carers, which they must sign, committing them to sign the diary planner every evening so that they know how their child is progressing.

"We chap the parents' doors to tell them how well their kids are doing. We visit the parents to arrange places on school trips. We send home good news cards saying how well the pupils are doing," says Mr MacLaughlan.

"We are giving certificates, properly embossed with the council logo, to kids who have never had a certificate in their lives before. They plaster them over their walls at home - I've seen them - and the parents enjoy seeing their children succeed."

The school day operates on 35-minute periods, including lunchtime, when play is supervised and structured. In fact, the pupils are supervised from the minute they get on the school bus until they are dropped off at the end of the day.

Play is supervised not just for behaviour reasons. Ms Cousar says: "A lot of these kids have missed out on play because they have missed out on school or don't play at home. They are developmentally behind. So you encourage them to play. It is integrated into the teaching as well as used as a reward."

The school council can spend up to pound;1,000 a year on a one-day trip. Trips in the past have taken them as far as London and Belfast. Part of the deal is that the pound;1,000 is cover for maintenance - another cunning strategy - so as long as the pupils don't damage school property, the day out remains on the agenda.

Drama and art are used to develop self-esteem. Scott Johnston, director of the West Lothian Youth Theatre, whose staff take drama classes at Burnhouse, says: "In the three years we've been coming here there has been a change in the young people. I've seen positive changes in behaviour, with better concentration and more team work developing. Drama has contributed to it, but it's really about the school ethos."

Mr MacLaughlan points out that only six pupils in the school's four years of existence have not had their needs met. "Their needs were greater than we could meet. But that amounts only to about 2 per cent of our pupils."

Of last year's school leavers, he says all are either in employment or training. Two joined the army.

Mainstream school staff regularly attend Burnhouse for continuing professional development afternoons, to look at the positive behaviour scheme and how to deal with difficult pupils.

"Mainstream teachers can't believe what these pupils achieve," says Ms Cousar.

"It might sound soppy," says Mr MacLaughlan, "but you have to make these kids feel wanted."

He adds: "When you stop enjoying this job, get out. It's not worth it just for the pension. The work takes time. It takes money and resources.

"It offers more than an alternative to exclusion. To adapt the famous expression of Rikki Fulton's character Josie, it offers a great educational opporchancity."

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