Saved by our own children

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Pastoral support has transformed pupil behaviour and lifted a school out of special measures. Phil Revell reports

When Mark Vickers arrived at the Manhood community college near Chichester in January 2005, he made his views explicit. Emblazoned across the front of the building in foot-high letters is the mantra "Every child matters, every child succeeds".

"It's about students feeling good about coming into school and thinking that the staff really care about them," he said. "If you do not bring in strategies to help young people feel supported, then they will not have the confidence to learn."

In November 2004, pupils at the Sussex 11-16 secondary told inspectors their worries about bullying. As a result, the Ofsted team made pupil behaviour and bullying one of the key issues for Manhood to address.

Together with other perceived weaknesses it plunged the school into special measures.

This year that judgement was reversed. Ofsted praised the head's outstanding leadership and the pupils' significantly improved behaviour.

"Pupils confidently explain why the college is so much better than it was,"

said the inspectors. "Behaviour is now excellent - relationships are based on mutual respect."

This has not been achieved by the well-known tactic of clearing out the troublemakers; in fact exclusions are down.

"We have gone from a punitive culture to a rewards culture," explained assistant head Tony Gilmour. "When youngsters do well we say: 'Let's find a way to recognise this; let's tell their parents how good they are'."

Mr Gilmour and his wife Carol both taught under the previous administration.

"Whilst some people were working very hard, it was in pockets," said Mr Gilmour. He believes that the 540-pupil school, which is in Selsey on the tip of an eight-mile long peninsula south of Chichester, had become isolated.

"People weren't getting out to see what was happening in other schools.

There were far too many staff who were not working effectively, behaviour started to deteriorate and some staff were blaming the kids. The culture became quite punitive," he said.

One of Mark Vickers' first acts was to strengthen the system of student support; he appointed Mr and Mrs Gilmour as assistant heads in charge of pastoral support, with two full-time non-teaching staff to deal with the day-to-day workload.

Millie Relf and Julia Markey are described as pastoral managers and fill roles that would be reserved for experienced teachers in many other schools. Ms Relf was a cover supervisor at the school, whilst Ms Markey had worked as an educational welfare officer and Connexions adviser.

"We deal with uniform issues and with general behaviour - and bullying,"

said Ms Markey. "Things like name-calling - I've had students bullied in that way over a long period of time. Then one day they come into my office and the floodgates open."

The two pastoral managers have a robust way with such problems - gathering students together and forcing the bully to confront the consequences of his or her behaviour. Neither has a teaching commitment and that means that parents can be informed as soon as a problem arises. "If students step out of line they know that I will ring their parents immediately; parents can come in and see us at any time," said Ms Relf.

There is also an e-mail system which students can use to report bullying, or simply sound off about a problem.

"One girl wrote about an incident just to say that it really annoyed her, and that's all she wanted to say," said Ms Markey.

The pastoral managers deal with referrals to outside agencies; they are in contact with the police, with community wardens, the school nurse, and with other children's services. They also observe students in lessons, something that concerned a few teachers at first.

"Teachers may not know about the background of student relationships. I do know and I can help with a seating plan or an approach," said Ms Relf.

Dealing with bullying was one aspect of the new system of support; the other key element was reward. There are "well done" slips for good work.

"At the end of the week they go into a box and we pull out one; there's a reward which might be a cinema voucher. It's not bribery, it's a reward,"

said Carol Gilmour.

Manhood has a student council, student mentors and prefects. This year's Year 11 leavers had an American-style prom that was organised by the students and partly paid for from the rewards fund.

Older students are clear about the changes they have seen. "The atmosphere before was negative - people didn't want to come to school," said one Year 11 student. "There's a huge difference now - the senior staff seem to be in the corridors all the time, and people feel they can talk about things that worry them. Even if it is a small problem, Mr Vickers will deal with it himself."

Mr Vickers said: "For me the pastoral support measures were vital. It wasn't just about escaping from special measures. It's about being positive; saying to young people 'Tell us what you think'. That way they see that we care, and they are more likely to make the effort to succeed."

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