Project that tamed the 'Magnificent Seven'

8th November 1996 at 00:00
A parent support group and a special unit at an Aberdeen secondary are working wonders for classroom behaviour and attendance.

In the small, but pleasantly decorated meeting room at St Machar Parent Support Project, Aberdeen, four girls aged between 13 and 15 years old have the grace to look shamefaced as Mary, the mother of two of them, describes their wild behaviour last year.

"We called them and their three pals the 'Magnificent Seven' because they got into so much trouble as a gang. They'd skive off school and hang around the town and all the time fool their parents into thinking they were going to school as normal.

"Even when we found out about it, they still skived and we were really worried about what they were getting up to - whether they were taking drugs, or maybe stealing."

Today the gang's attendance at school, if not exemplary, has improved considerably. Mary is in no doubt as to the reason.

"Between them, this project and 'The Base' have got these kids back into school. If it hadn't been for them, goodness knows what they'd be doing just now."

The Base is the affectionate nickname for the Emotional Behavioural Difficulties (EBD) unit at the nearby St Machar Academy. A pilot project for the past five years has earned a solid reputation for helping disruptive pupils stay in school by addressing their diverse difficulties on a one-to-one basis.

Its close relationship with the two-year-old Parent Support Project has fostered a better understanding between teachers, parents and pupils - all of whom face the challenges of working and living in an officially-designated area of deprivation.

A traditional problem for parents in the area has been lack of confidence in approaching teaching staff, often due to their own unfavourable experiences at school. The parent-managed project, funded by Urban Aid and representing the areas served by St Machar Academy and its feeder primary schools, has set up a number of initiatives, including one-to-one support, a parents' drama group, parenting classes and a homework group, to enable parents to encourage their children to have a positive and rewarding experience of the educational system.

Triumphing over long-term truancy has been a major challenge for the three-way partnership between teachers, parents and pupils, as project co-ordinator Frances O'Boyle explains: "Just before last Easter, we had a truancy issue which urgently needed to be addressed. The Parent Support Project arranged a meeting between parents and teachers to find a solution.

"Previously, the parents had blamed each other's children for instigating the truancy, but the meeting showed that everyone shared the same concerns. "

It was discovered that the pupils, for various reasons, felt isolated in certain classes and this had prompted their truancy. Referral to the EBD Unit gave them the special attention they required, and a drama worker was brought in to help the group - five girls and two boys from Secondary 1, 2 and 3 - work through their difficulties. These steps, augmented by a short-term incentive scheme (involving treats for good behaviour), succeeded in breaking the pattern of truancy.

Mary's daughters and their friends speak highly of the unit and its staff, their faces becoming animated as they describe their favourite activities - using the computers, looking after plants and drawing and painting.

"The Base is cool. If you're good to them, they're good to you," says Mary's elder daughter. Over at the unit, the attitude of a group of boys aged 13 to 16 reinforces her words. They speak of being banned from certain classes for bad behaviour, but seem perfectly calm and happy in the multi-activity environment of The Base, which currently has an enrolment of 51 pupils.

Teacher-in-charge, Meg Price, explains the unit's philosophy: "We start by finding out where each child's difficulties lie and help him or her to address their behaviour by drawing up a contract setting out agreed targets to be achieved on a day-to-day basis.

"These vary from pupil-to-pupil, and can range from promising not to shout in class to remembering to smile and to be pleasant - the aims have to be very specific. We then negotiate for the child to return to class, and his or her teachers are asked to tick boxes verifying whether they have met their targets, and those who have demonstrated consistent good behaviour will be rewarded with a favourite activity," she says.

"Parents and guardians play an important role in our work, and in general they are very positive and do their best to encourage their children to fulfil their contracts."

So successful has the unit been in complying with the local authority strategy of keeping children in school, that Ms Price often has to use attendance at The Base as a privilege in itself. She also has had to gently discourage young hopefuls with no emotional or behavioural difficulties from "referring themselves" to her.

Experimental initiatives, such as encouraging youngsters with low self-esteem to help out at the Parent Support Project homework group, and setting up a lunchtime club for EBD Unit pupils at the project's premises, are yet more examples of the myriad ways in which the unit and project are working together for the benefit of the wider community.

Liza Fraser, chair of the Parent Support Project's management committee, says the unique relationship is highly valued by parents in the area. "The two work really well together. Parents feel The Base is crucial for those children who for one reason or another find themselves on the outskirts of the education system."

She and many others - parents, teachers and pupils - are anxious about what will happen next March, when the unit's funding comes to an end. A recent independent evaluation has recommended the project be made permanent, but as yet there is no indication whether or not this will happen.

St Machar's headteacher Len Taylor, who plays an active part in keeping the communication channels open by sitting on the project's management committee and encouraging parents to visit him at sessions on Saturday mornings, is determined that the unit will survive beyond its trial period.

"I don't know yet what the outcome will be, but I will use every means within my power to ensure that we do not lose the essence of The Base. It and the Parent Support Project are working wonders here and I hope it will continue to be very much a part of life at St Machar Academy," he says.

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