A dozen junior schoolchildren sit quietly in neat rows, watching a classmate perform a puppet show. The wooden string puppets, which include a promising, if eclectic, assemblage of ghost, crocodile, bat, pterodactyl and witch, are framed in a simply designed, vibrant blue puppet theatre.
Lorna, the nine-year-old puppeteer, improvises her narrative. It's a hit because the boys interject an appreciative "this play is good" when the story takes a funny twist, which it does with great regularity.
The audience also joins in when Lorna gets interactive, like a seasoned panto dame. "You've seen me before," says the Bat to the boys. "What's my name?" While she doesn't get the required response ("Bat Bum?" offers one boy helpfully), she takes it in her stride. "No!" she exclaims, laughing. "It's Doris. Doris the Bat".
Not such an unusual scenario, you might think. Except that these are the kind of children being castigated by the self-proclaimed moral guardians of our nation as out-of-control school wreckers. They are the pupils that many high-flying schools in the league tables won't touch with a barge pole. If they are touched, they are often quickly dropped. Half of these children have been permanently excluded from mainstream schools for disruptive behaviour. They are considered beyond the pale and, some of them, uneducable.
The puppeteers and audience are some of the 21 pupils, aged between five and 12, who attend the tiny Severn Bridge Centre for Emotional and Behaviour Difficulties in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. In a cosy, adapted terrace house, headteacher Sue Nash and her staff cuddle, cajole, listen and teach. Along with building the children's academic skills through a national curriculum that, for some of them, is an obstacle course, the school struggles to build their self-esteem and their ability to establish and maintain relationships.
Enter the bat, crocodile, et al. As part of the school's pastoral emphasis, the puppets and theatre, designed and handmade by the Wooden Pilchard Puppet Theatre Company, figure prominently. While not originally designed with this purpose in mind, the puppet theatre has proved to be therapeutic with the children. As teacher Polly Collins puts it, "Children can take risks with the puppets. They can say things through them that they can't say face to face with staff or other children".
Lorna, the puppeteer, is a case in point. The only girl at the school, she is autistic and has difficulty relating to other children. But facing a classroom full of bumptious boys from behind the puppet theatre, she glowed with vivacity and humour. Shelley Wright, a volunteer teacher, says: "She managed to get the boys spellbound. For their part, they had an opportunity to appreciate her qualities which they otherwise wouldn't have. " The boys, too, love working with the string puppets or integrating their handmade finger puppets into the theatre. While Lorna improvises her shows, the boys prefer working from scripts that they have devised collaboratively. Daniel and Kevin, two 11-year-olds, follow Lorna with a circus show, big on action and somewhat non-existent on narrative. But it builds their sense of worth and enraptures the audience, despite its lack of plot. Two boys who had been on the verge of bashing each other in a lull before the curtain went up sit transfixed, thumbs in mouths, as first the horse is introduced, then the lion.
The climax of the show, a few jokes that have seen better days, elicits the kind of laughter that indicates that even if the audience isn't hearing them for the first time, it doesn't matter. The boys bow to the applause, basking in their moment of glory.
As well they should. "Some of these children have profound problems. For the majority, it's an achievement for them to be here every day, sitting on a chair," Sue Nash says. Three of the 21 children are on medication for attention deficit disorder. The others follow the general pattern of emotional and behaviour difficulties, displaying non-compliant behaviour, some of them aggressive. Many won't conform and refuse to follow instructions.
With all the challenges that they present to teachers, their affinity with, and response to, puppets is moving. As child psychotherapists, including Melanie Klein, have observed over most of the past century, disturbed children can transfer aggression, anxieties and secrets on to these inanimate objects. They can speak through them in a way that they would not allow themselves to do otherwise. They can reveal aspects of themselves in a way that they would find too emotionally dangerous without.
Sue Nash says: "Puppets give our children a different voice. They can do different things with their right and left hands. They love looking at the puppets through mirrors as they work with them."
Shelley Wright adds: "Puppets give us one of the best co-operational responses from the children. Among other things, we can help them get rid of some of their aggression through the puppets. We help them explore alternatives to 'I'm going to thump him, Miss.'"
Puppet-maker Rosalie O'Nions has been so impressed with the way the school has used the puppets that she and her puppet-making partner, husband Frank, have donated two puppet theatres to Severn Bridge. "We've had a few special schools using them and have been amazed at how therapeutic they have been," she says. "From the beginning, we have looked at ways of making puppets that would allow children the scope to play and make up their stories, to discover things for themselves."
Their Wooden Pilchards are soon to take on different dimensions. In production for Norfolk Travellers Education Service are puppet theatres, with caravans, ponies and a converted bus. "The idea is to provide puppets that traveller children can identify with. These children feel out of place in school. This will give them a resource that reflects their lives." The couple will also be doing more elaborate puppet Shakespearean theatres for older children, featuring character puppets that can be moved along the stage with magnets as well as string.
The Wooden Pilchard Puppet Theatre Company, tel: 01788 823263