'This is not a bad boys' school'

27th October 2006 at 01:00
The stereotype of primary pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties as rampaging bundles of aggression are dispelled as soon as you walk into Pentland School. Henry Hepburn reports on a supportive environment that still expects the children to work hard and achieve

A boy aged about 10 smiles and leans across the dining table to catch my attention. "Do you know this is a special school?" he whispers.

There is pride in his question, with its underlying suggestion that nothing I have seen would tell me Pentland School, in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, was anything other than mainstream.

Yet my lunch companion's assumption is right: nearly three hours into a day-long visit to the school, nothing I have seen would suggest it is actually for primary children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

It is the politeness and articulacy of the pupils that strike you most; nightmarish stereotypes of rampaging bundles of aggression are dispelled from the start.

Robbie, a softly spoken and courteous 11-year-old, willingly leaves his cheese and wine morning - a special treat, with grape juice standing in for the fermented variety - to take me on a tour of the school. He knocks on classroom doors, waits each time for a response, then introduces me. One boy sticks out his thumb - the school signal to indicate that he wishes to speak - and asks his teacher if he can shake my hand, before traipsing across the room to deliver a firm greeting.

The school - in theory a co-ed for all primary ages but whose 30 pupils are all boys in P4 to P7 - is remarkable for its constant buzz of purposeful activity. Children are always on the move and each class has a non-stop murmur of debate, while teachers are frequently darting around to give updates on pressing issues.

The bustle is reflected in the corridors, where walls are crammed with colour and text. Out of it all emerges a strong sense of community and pupil empowerment.

Outside one classroom hang details of committees on which teachers and pupils tackle Eco School, ethos and mediation issues. Elsewhere, a section of wall is covered in handwritten messages to teachers: "To Mrs Murehead.

You are kind"; "Thanks, Mrs Fisher, for getting the ball"; "To my teacher.

I have a lovlay teacher." On the opposite wall, pupils have written words of encouragement for shy classmates: "It's OK, don't be afraid wee man"; "We won't bite"; "Please come and hang with us."

The headteacher, Iain Porteous, continually refers to the school as a family. If the pupils, nine teachers and five classroom assistants feel happy and secure, he reasons, learning will follow. But the security of the family comes with responsibility, an idea most clearly seen in circle time.

This weekly session, in which the whole school takes part, is a "huge, huge bedrock" of Pentland's work, says Mr Porteous.

"It's a marvel, but it didn't take place by magic," he says. "We gradually built up the amount of pupils involved and now they all gather and concentrate for 40 minutes on people talking.

"It's a time when we look reactively at things that have happened in school, at how some things are not allowed to happen because they damage the ethos of the family and because they compromise learning and teaching.

"Sometimes people may stand up and admit 'I'm one of these bullies we're talking about', and then in a polite, respectful way each of the children will be given an opportunity to suggest how that child might correct their ways. It's powerful in both directions, because we say 'Don't be hypocritical and tell someone they need to work harder when you're not working hard yourself'."

The Pentland family is not one that gives in to a child's whims; rewards are hard-earned. Good behaviour wins points and the children with most at the end of each week get first pick of activities in golden time on a Friday afternoon, such as swimming, woodcraft and baking.

The only behavioural blip I see is when a new pupil slumps into a desk outside a classroom and bursts into tears after being told he has failed to live up to Pentland standards of behaviour.

Underpinning these exacting standards is an awareness of the issues the children may be dealing with. On the the wall outside behaviour support teacher Kathleen Cassidy's room are several cardboard cutouts of hands.

These are "helping hands", where pupils can write a message to let Mrs Cassidy know they want to discuss an issue.

The children often come from very difficult and sometimes abusive backgrounds. Some have had to cope with the death of parents, absentee parents, alcoholism in the family and starvation. They arrive at Pentland on the advice of psychologists and teachers, having been unable to cope in mainstream schools. New pupils often come with anger management problems; some are unable to sit still because they are afraid of something happening behind their back; others are so anxious that they struggle to control bodily functions.

Yet the sense of orderly bustle I saw is typical, Mr Porteous says, but not without exception. Staff have had to deal with sporadic outbreaks of violence and extreme situations in which children have put their own safety in danger.

Although behaviour can regress outside the school, Mr Porteous receives reports of dramatic progress. "We have parents saying they can't believe what we've done with their children, that they're playing with siblings, doing their homework, that they now have a happy family.

"The children are behaving because they're happy, and they're doing far more than they've ever done.

"The curriculum here is exactly the same as in a mainstream school. There are huge expectations on these kids to produce quality and quantity."

The door is never closed on reintegration into mainstream schools. A few pupils have gone on to mainstream secondaries in recent years, but not all have coped with the readjustment. It is more likely that a Pentland pupil will go to one of North Lanarkshire's secondary special schools.

"This is not a bad boys' school," says Mr Porteous. "It is a school that is able to meet the needs of an increasing number of younger and younger children whose social and emotional needs cannot, and never will, be met in the mainstream until mainstream schools are able to adjust to accommodate them.

"The present system is not geared to accommodating these kids. They cannot and should not be included, for their sake, for their peers' sake, for the staff's sake, for their families' sake. Coming to Pentland improves everybody's lot."

Inspectors' reports

In April 2002, HM Inspectorate of Education found that Pentland's staff had established LESS THAN a stable and supportive environment and a good educational experience. Its key strengths included:

* the sense of community between staff and pupils

* the pride pupils took in their achievements

* the high level of commitment to the school from staff and

* the overall behaviour of pupils and their positive attitude to classwork.

Room for improvement was identified in some areas, such as assessment and parts of the curriculum.

In September 2004, a follow-up report by North Lanarkshire Council found that the school had responded well to recommendations and had improved pupil attainment.

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