Super Troup helps children to excel

14th August 2009 at 01:00
Learning and support take place around the clock and around the grounds at Troup House, as Henry Hepburn reports

The 19th-century stately home was gloomy, the decor tired and the grounds overgrown. Jane and Edmund Arrowsmith knew immediately that they had found the place for their new residential special school.

The couple were determined to transform Troup House - so much so that when Mr Arrowsmith almost died in a car accident, four weeks before the proposed purchase in 2005, he insisted it go ahead anyway. The former residence of the Laird of Gamrie, near the north Aberdeenshire coast, has since undergone a remarkable transformation into an all-year-round school, thought to be unique in Scotland.

Pupils come from all over Scotland but have one big thing in common. "These children have been let down by adults all their lives," says Mrs Arrowsmith, now principal. Background files can make for distressing reading and large chunks of schooling have been missed. Often, pupils arrive at Troup House far below expected literacy and numeracy levels.

One unique element of the school, Mrs Arrowsmith explains, is the range of opportunities open to pupils. Some get to sail round the British coastline in a yacht, or ski in France. A boy who thrives on "experiential learning", meanwhile, was given free rein to build his own woodland bothy and paint a mural on its side.

"Children are always good at something," says Mrs Arrowsmith, who was formerly headteacher at Oakbank School in Aberdeen. "There are so many opportunities here that they generally excel in several areas."

A maximum of 12 children, aged between eight and 16, attend the school, and all have their own rooms upstairs. Downstairs has a cosy feel, with comfy settees, photos of smiling faces and a bright dining room, although an imposing central staircase set against ornate wallpaper is a reminder of landed-gentry grandeur.

No lessons take place in Troup House itself. Just next door is a series of new Finnish-style log cabins, built as classrooms. They provide the space for classes of no more than two and provision of the full curriculum.

The school's uniqueness lies also in how enthusiastically it embraces the outdoors, Mrs Arrowsmith believes: 42 acres of largely wooded grounds is a classroom in itself.

Swathes of thick vegetation have been cleared to make space, for example, for a long ropes course of progressively more difficult parts. The most adventurous can whizz 180 feet over a loch or climb 75 feet up a tree. The pupils tend not to give their trust easily, so this area is about building relationships as much as physical skills. If you can only walk along a narrow rail by leaning on someone else, trust is crucial.

The school espouses a 24-hour curriculum. Every opportunity is taken for pupils to learn, Mrs Arrowsmith says, "from the moment they get up in the morning at the breakfast table, to when they brush their teeth". Breakfast provides a chance to set the table and build social skills; some children have never sat down at a dining table.

The school is "not just about learning - it's about the totality of experience", explains Mrs Arrowsmith, who believes its approach epitomises A Curriculum for Excellence.

This is a serene place, surrounded by tall trees a few hundred yards from the main road (which leads to Banff one way and Pennan, the village where Local Hero was shot, the other). Zoe MacLennan, 15, says the best thing about Troup House is that "you can get lost here". Sean Cameron, 12, also revels in the space - he's not a fan of Bamp;Bs because, in his experience, you can't go where you like.

There are 50 staff in all: 34 full-time carers, eight full-time teachers, three part-time teachers, three employees who look after the grounds and buildings and two full-time administrators. The work can be intense, and very specific qualities are demanded of everyone, including a range of life experiences, flexibility and a sense of humour.

"You never have a middle-of-the-road day - it's either marvellous or tearing your hair out," Mrs Arrowsmith says.

Troup House defines success, ultimately, as helping children back to their own communities, however long that takes. One pupil has been at the school since it opened in 2006, another was able to leave after three or four months. Pupils should also achieve academic qualifications - the "currency for change", Mrs Arrowsmith says - and learn the social skills for living in the outside world.

In the short time the school has been open, Mrs Arrowsmith believes it has had positive results with every child. It received an excellent HMIE report last year. Measuring success is difficult, however, and she would like to see a longitudinal study examining the impact of residential schools.

The Troup House roll has gradually grown, despite the high expense to local authorities of sending children there (the school cannot say how much it costs because of commercial sensitivities). Now at full capacity, it finds itself having to turn some away.

A number of Troup House pupils go home for the weekend, but others have no contact with their families. Nurturing an atmosphere that is more like a family than an institution is, says Mrs Arrowsmith, crucial to the school's success.

Zoe, who has been a pupil for two-and-a-half years, aspires to be a chef and live near her sister in Aviemore, but she worries about leaving Troup House. "It's like my home," she says.

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