Securing pupils with dark past

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Secure units are expensive but Rossie school believes it has a successful mix of discipline and care, Kay Smith writes

AT pound;2,500 a week it's not cheap to keep a child in a secure unit. Small wonder that a planning group for the Scottish Executive's social work inspectorate last year called on such units to provide value for money through "effective intervention".

The 250 school-aged children sent to Scotland's seven secure units are likely to have complex problems. Most will come from a disadvantaged background, have had a disrupted family life and a history of petty offending. They will have been through the children's hearing system and may have been put in a local open residential care unit only to abscond repeatedly. Around a fifth will have come through the court system and have been sentenced for one or more serious offences.

Secure units such as Rossie school, in Angus, aim to give youngsters a tightly-structured, cohesive environment that provides education as well as help with coping with potentially self-destructive behaviour.

Brian Hooper, Rossie's head of education for the past two years, has been following a recommendation from a 1996 HMI education report for the school to broaden its curriculum. It may have a roll of only about 29 but, with 14 teachers, it has still managed "to get as close to mainstream education as possible" in the range of subjects provided, Mr Hooper says.

The average stay at Rossie is only around eight months and pupils can arrive at short notice any time during the normal school session. A flexible, as well as comprehensive, curriculum is called for. The Higher Still programme, based on units and continuous assessment, is already proving a Godsend and all pupils will work towards the new-style assessments within the Scottish Qualifications Authority framework.

Pupils also benefit from being taught by committed and able staff - a judgment likely to be acknowledged in an HMI report early in the New Year. Senior managers expect that classroom teaching will get a rating of "good" to "very good".

But as well as teaching, education staff at Rossie must, like their care colleagues, manage the sometimes exceptionally challenging behaviour of pupils. Most of the time that can be done through personality and good teaching. But one back-up is a merit system in which points and privileges are gained or lost through behaviour. Mr Hooper says that pupils respect it for its explicit recognition of rights and wrongs. It also helps teachers deal with volatile situations. "It helps calm things down, Mr Hooper says.

A pupil who becomes agitated or aggressive in class can be sent out for 10 minutes of counselling in the guidance room. But to help deal with more serious outbursts teachers, like their care colleagues, are being trained in CALM - Crisis Aggression Limitation Management.

This includes a clear structure of physical restraint tactics, such as steering a child away from a trouble spot and culminating, if necessary, in taking "full control" and the child being taken to his or her room. None of these procedures is carried out in anger and all are fully explained to the child as they happen. Tony Thomson, who is due to retire this week as Rossie's chief executive, says that they are needed in only 1 per cent of incidents.

Training in CALM is one of a several ways in which traditional demarcation lines between teachers and care staff are blurred. Mr Thomson says: "The care staff get to see the value of the structures of education, and teachers learn a wide range of techniques with behaviour."

The carers contribute to education through running homework clubs and extra-curricular activities. Teachers and carers share in cognitive behavioural therapy aimed at getting pupils to work through the consequences of their actions.

Lee, a fifth-year pupil serving a sentence for armed robbery and assault, says:

"When I first came to Rossie I couldn't control myself. I'd lose the plot. But I've been getting help with my anger - and I'm getting better." He is also acquiring qualifications he would not have gained otherwise. "I was always truanting from school." He plans to stay on the straight and narrow: "I've got a future now. I don't want to spoil that."

But no one is under the illusion that gains made at Rossie are retained if young people have to return to bad circumstances at home. The unit does its best to secure training and college places for the over-16s. Younger pupils go on to their next placement with at least a good record of their achievements and abilities, which is more, the HMI noted, than most arrive with. For 13-year-old Jamie, recorded achievement will also mean "proving I can keep out of trouble and not run away."

Especially for the younger pupils, suddenly being taken away from a familiar environment, however difficult, and put in a secure unit can seem earth-shattering.

"I was crying, I hated it when I first came here," 14-year-old Shelley recalls. But typically, her attitude has changed. "I've settled down. I won't want to go.

"But I'll come back to visit," she promises.

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