Pupils on the panel

24th January 2003 at 00:00
If bullying can't be banished, victims need a refuge

In Cambridge's historic city centre, on an elegant Georgian square with fairy lights strung from the bare branches of trees, is what may be England's smallest educational establishment. No sign announces it, but the picture-book house on the corner is a school. Inside, a dozen students and six adults, including co-ordinator Ruth Loshak, gather around the kitchen table for morning break.

The Red Balloon offers respite, recovery and learning to secondary-age children who have been severely bullied. They have suffered physical injuries, taunts and isolation.

"There are children for whom school is so awful that we have to educate them somewhere else," says founder Carrie Herbert. Her 12-place school is a pioneering model that helps damaged children resume their lives.

Originally trained as a teacher of English and drama, Carrie Herbert worked in Australia for two decades before returning to England and a PhD in sexual harassment at Cambridge. Working as an anti-bullying consultant to private schools and companies, she became aware of the scope of the problem. "I came across one or two children in each school who, because of what was happening, were voting with their feet and not going to school.

They wanted to learn, but in a safe environment."

In May 1996, bullying afflicted her own family and she ended up home-tutoring her 13- year-old niece. As others heard what she was doing, they begged her to take their unhappy children, too, and she set up Red Balloon in her own house.

Children who come must have been bullied and must agree to attend, learn, and treat others with consideration and respect. They are encouraged to follow their interests, choosing their subjects and negotiating education plans with the two full-time and four part-time teachers.

Reading, writing, listening and speaking are "non-negotiable", says Carrie Herbert, whose philosophy of education - "the less I talk, the more they learn. When you hand over the reins, they will do the learning" - underpins the pedagogy here. Young people are neither encouraged nor discouraged from talking about what has happened to them; circle time, writing their own books, art and drama can all be therapeutic.

The house itself is cosy and filled with music and laughter. "I hated going to school," says 14-year-old Tamsin, Red Balloon's most recent arrival. "I like being in a little house, wearing slippers. I like the dogs. Everyone's helpful. I used to feel sick thinking about going to school. I haven't felt sick in ages."

The school is a registered charity, subsidised by Carrie Herbert's workplace consultancy business. The optimum stay is up to a year, and many children have successfully moved on to new mainstream schools or colleges.

The pound;250-a-week places are funded privately or by the local authority. Cambridge pays for a few pupils; nearby Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk have also sent some and one parent moved from London so her child could attend.

Unhappy phone calls come from around Britain. Carrie Herbert's dream is to replicate the model in other places.

Ones to watch

Liverpool Quiet places project in 10 primary schools

Notschool Online environment for those failed by school: www.notschool.net

National Society for the Prevention of Child Cruelty Full Stop campaign to beat bullying

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