Snapshots of a brief encounter

7th August 2009 at 01:00
Kilcreggan's tradition of fostering children in care earns village primary a Schools for All award

The village of Kilcreggan, between the Gare Loch and Loch Long in Argyll, would seem, at first glance, an unlikely place to find a cluster of looked-after children.

Yet over the years, a long-standing tradition has developed among its residents of fostering children who are in local authority care.

When Clyde shipbuilding was in its heyday, many Glasgow ship-owners and merchants made their summer retreats, or even permanent residences, in Kilcreggan - which is reflected in some very grand houses along the shore.

It may be that the availability of space in these large homes led local people to open them and their hearts to children in care; but whatever the reason, its school sees a disproportionately high number of looked-after and accommodated youngsters join its roll - and often leave soon afterwards.

Frances Bretman, Kilcreggan Primary's headteacher, estimates that at the start of this year, nearly a fifth of the 80-pupil roll (there are a further 20 in nursery) were either looked-after or adopted.

The school's success in integrating and supporting these children who come and go through its doors has earned it the CBI Schools for All prize in this year's Scottish Education Awards - a category which rewards schools that have been particularly successful in the looked-after sector.

These children are as much a part of the school community as the village's permanent residents. Foster carers become involved in school life through the PTA and parent councils, just like any other parents; and the looked- after children take on the same playground, tuck shop and P1 buddy duties as other pupils.

When a fostered child is adopted - or "when news comes of a `forever family' for any of these children", as Mrs Bretman puts it - time is taken to allow them to share information about their new families throughout the school.

"One child wanted to take his album round the whole school, while another was keen to revisit the pre-5 room and show it to the adults he knew there. On one occasion, the catering staff were shown the albums, while on another, the child wished to share it on a one-to-one with selected staff."

The children are encouraged to share their anxieties and worries with all staff, but in order to support them, staff have been trained to have an understanding of "attachment" issues, either by attending specific courses or by having the information cascaded to them "in-house".

"Different approaches have been required to motivate and engage different pupils," says Mrs Bretman, "and we have found that being approachable and flexible, while still having very clear behaviour codes, works very well for them. Time out of class may be required for some, while time in a structured classroom is what others need."

One of the behaviour tools used by the school is its "good to be green" programme. Every pupil starts the day on a green card and aims to finish on green. Cards may change to amber or red during the day, depending on behaviour, but each individual can get back to green by sorting out his or her behaviour.

"This works well, as it is a whole-school scheme and does not single out those pupils, often looked-after and accommodated, with specific behaviour targets," says Mrs Bretman.

The headteacher also praises the input from classroom assistants and ASN auxiliaries who help to keep children on task and defuse potentially difficult situations before they develop.

"They tactfully remove pupils from the classroom and give them time to sort out issues; they are able to provide this important `me' time for these children; they work in areas where the child feels safe and secure - even if this has been under desks," she adds.

Non-teaching staff who work in the office and kitchens and the janitor also play an important role, but the pupils too are supportive and understanding of the children who pass through their school.

"We do a lot of playground work, a lot of circle time and a lot of personal and social development. We celebrate all sorts of achievements and make a big thing of everyone's birthday," says Mrs Bretman.

The majority of the looked-after children are achieving their expected levels within national assessment guidelines. But, Mrs Bretman adds, "at times we have to ignore education until we get the behaviour on track.

"We have learnt that there is no point in pushing to get educational attainment until you have got happy and settled children."

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