Putting the pieces back

8th December 1995 at 00:00
A Birmingham school is committed to children with behavioural difficulties. Wendy Wallace reports.

There's a life-size painted figure on the wall with two speech bubbles rising above it: "I am cross with my Mum" and "I'm having a difficult day." Neither sentiment is unusual in this classroom for children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties at The Grove School, a mainstream primary school in Clare Short's Ladywood constituency in Birmingham.

Underneath the picture, five children work at small tables, with close and constant attention from three adults - two teachers and one assistant. The pupils are cutting up writing they have done earlier on the computer, and re-assembling it, gluing it down on sugar paper. The atmosphere is homely, industrious and slightly tense.

These are not easy children to work with. Their distress manifests itself suddenly and often violently. One child keeps up a non-stop stream of disruptive, piping chatter. "It's very, very intense all the time," says Muriel Daly, head of the unit. "You've got to be 10 steps ahead."

This "EBD resource base", as the local authority terms it, takes the children that other schools can't cope with. Most of the 11 pupils on roll have been expelled from other schools, sometimes more than once. Many have already spent time out of school. For some of the children, well-known to social workers, the likely source of their problems is clear - sexual abuse, neglect, inordinate chaos at home. For others, it is not so clear.

Originally set up by headteacher Dr David Winkley solely for disturbed children from within The Grove, the unit has now grown in expertise. For the last five years it has taken children referred from schools around the city, from ages seven to 11. Staffed by two full-time teachers, and the equivalent of two full-time assistants, the unit can take a maximum of 12 children. It is paid for out of central funds and currently costs Birmingham Pounds 72, 000 a year.

Dr Winkley, head of The Grove for 20 years and a leading figure in the city's education scene, is passionately committed to the unit. "This is like a second chance for these children," he says. "They've usually fallen apart too badly ever to go back to their original school. But we try as far as possible to treat them like any other child. The great advantage is that here they are integrated, but with the possibility of intensive support."

The unit has the enthusiastic backing of Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer and there are plans to copy the scheme in at least two other primary schools. "People can see it working at The Grove," he says, "and we're optimistic that we can replicate it in places that are similarly confident and professional."

With input from a consultant psychiatrist and an on-site counsellor, staff have evolved a form of behaviour management which helps many children begin to gain self-control.

A complicated system of points, stars, certificates and sweets - which monitors every minute of the child's day - is understood by them all. Gary, nine, recently worked his way up to a book token, and chose The Secret Garden on tape. He is clearly proud.

Techniques used in the unit extend, in modified form, throughout the school. Stars, stickers, badges and certificates make up a reward system partly devised by the head of the EBD unit. That behaviour management is well-developed in the whole school is partly thanks to the expertise of the staff in the unit, says the head. "There are a lot of children without statements who also need extra support," says Dr Winkley. "Having the unit concentrates the mind on how you address learning difficulties generally."

Muriel Daly and her colleagues try to teach children to express themselves appropriately. "We're trying to get them not to retaliate by punching, not to go over the top if they lose at a game or get a piece of work wrong," she says. Many of the children are bright, and the intensive teaching they receive shows up in the often high quality of their academic work.

Integration begins almost immediately for children at the unit, with two sessions a week in the classroom with their mainstream peers. By the time a child is 10 or 11 he or she may be virtually full-time in the mainstream if all is going well. All the children from the unit have to deal daily with playtimes and dinnertimes - but things are made a little easier for them. Their playtimes are shorter; they are allowed, collectively, to jump the queue for lunch, then sit at their own designated table, with their own staff. The unit has its own lavatories, and direct access to outside.

There is a waiting list for places at the Grove. "We've got a feel for the kind of child who's likely to benefit," says Dr David Winkley. "Children with deep emotional problems, yes. But not serious psychiatric illness." There are currently three girls and eight boys. Referrals for boys are far more numerous, but the unit's most memorably difficult pupils have been girls, the head says.

Parental support is vital if the changes wrought in the children are to be lasting, but sometimes the adults won't get involved. Muriel Daly says: "We try our hardest to get parental support, but it's not always there. For some of our pupils, school is the safest and happiest place."

Children at the top end of the junior years are unlikely to get a place. "Realistically, if they're aged 10 and schools are having great difficulties, we usually say no. We feel that the child is too old for us," says Muriel Daly. They would like to take children younger than seven, and are looking at including children from nursery age.

"By 12 or 13, some kids are out of school permanently, roaming the streets, " says David Winkley. "Ninety per cent of them could have been picked up in nursery or reception."

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