Through the mill and back again

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Peter Dunn on the short-sharp-shock regime that saved a pupil caught possessing drugs. Set amid serene sheep pastures, Colfox comprehensive school on the edge of Bridport, west Dorset, has the external appearance of a kind deed in a troubled world. One pictures its 900 pupils tumbling cheerfully home each day to farmhouse teas, followed by homework beside flickering log fires.

This can be an illusion, even in Hardy country. Three months ago the school's vigilant intelligence network picked up the first ominous signs of drug-peddling. Two 14-year-old pupils were summarily expelled for selling LSD - in the form of tablets and stick-on transfers - and cannabis.

The fate of two others, including a 13-year-old son of a farming family, teetered in the balance. Both had confessed to the "second-level" offence of possessing rather than selling drugs.

Most schools in Dorset, where 60 pupils across the county have been expelled for drugs-related offences in the past year, would have been equally draconian with all four pupils. Colfox decided, through its pioneering special needs department, to offer the boy and his fellow offender another way out.

The Colfox Alternative (to exclusion) programme is based on the belief that most children, given an opportunity to reflect on the enormity of the damage they are doing to themselves, their parents and their teachers, are redeemable; that tipping them out of the education system creates more economic and social problems than it solves.

"Our concern is obviously for their shattered lives," says Chris Mason, Colfox's head. "Expulsion means that at the very time they need the most support they actually get less. They then have time on their hands to get more into drugs. They tend to meet up with each other and are actually more likely to traffic to students. Even though your intention has been to defend children in your school, you've created a threat. And that's why we've looked round for another way.

Colfox policy remains rigid on pupils caught selling drugs: their feet, as the old Army saying goes, do not touch the ground. It is those who simply confess to possession who are offered a ticket to salvation. The process quarantines the offender inside the school system for a "rehabilitation" period of three to five weeks. Isolated from his friends, yet tantalisingly close to their daily routine, he embarks on an intensive re-examination of life with his parents and the wider community.

Margaret Mason, head of Colfox's special needs department, who devised the Colfox Alternative with her colleague Laurie Farrow, is the first to admit that the quarantined pupil's experience, meticulously recorded in his personal diary, left all those involved emotionally exhausted. Chris Mason agrees that the process is a tough one.

"It's made clear from the start that the scheme is not negotiable. It's take it or leave it," he says. "The first part is getting the full story from the student. Then the parents are asked to come in, which is quite a fraught occasion because they're anguished and perhaps even panicky.

"The pupil returns to the school only after a period of one or two weeks' suspension. It's a most severe mark of the school's disapproval and it also gives us time to get the scheme together for that particular student."

Mrs Mason describes the isolation regime. "The student starts at 8.30am instead of 8.45 and must be brought in by a parent into the hands of a member of staff and collected at 4pm, a half hour longer than the normal day," she says. "Breaks and lunch hours are phased so there are no times when the child is on the loose at the same time as everyone else. They eat separately, with supervision.

"There's an intensive health education course, with a lot of general information about diet and the effect of different substances on the body. There's also a programme of fitness training - running, swimming, weight training - with tests applied at both ends of the course.

"There's counselling and questions which are actually quite difficult to answer, like: Question. 'Why did you do this?' Answer. 'Dunno.' To address that, the student spent a lot of time in our war memorial garden where some 30 inscriptions, carved on stone, list some of the finer qualities of mankind, like modesty, humility, self-discipline. He was sent to the garden with a member of staff to write them all down and then there were brainstorming sessions on each one."

Shopping, cooking, baking a Christmas cake for an old people's home in Bridport, helping out with the chores at home were all recorded in the pupil's diary. "I have been Hoovering and dusting for my mum," one entry said. "I have been painting for my dad. I have been feeding the pheasants and the ducks for my dad. I have been beating on the pheasant shoot."

Elsewhere in the diary, he was asked to adopt the voice of his mother and express the feelings she would have had when the school gave her the news about his involvement with drugs.

The Colfox Alternative is no automatic panacea. The other boy caught handling drugs failed to turn up at school on at least four days of the programme, and his future now looks bleak. Mr Mason believes, however, that the mere presence of one isolated, quarantined figure sends a strong message to the community.

"Other children can see the school means business and that drugs is not a soft option," he said. "And parents will feel secure that the school is protecting their children from such danger."

The pupil's experiences and his apparently genuine contrition, has caused a buzz at Dorset county hall which now plans to study and evaluate the experiment.

"I'm extremely excited about it," says Carol Allington, vice-chairman of the county education committee. "It's wonderful work, with great potential and I've said to the school: 'Don't keep it to yourselves'. We must make sure we follow this up properly."

Mr Mason says the scheme makes economic as well as social sense and will be looking for positive funding. Rehabilitating a pupil costs Colfox about Pounds 2,000. Five- hours-a-week home tuition for an expelled child costs more than Pounds 3,000 a year, with the bill at special schools topping Pounds 7, 000.

The real savings, in terms of a child's future, could only be identified at the hour-long assessment board of headteacher, school governor and departmental head, which convened at Colfox a week ago to decide whether the rehabilitated pupil could return to school life.

"That last day was sapping for all of us," Mrs Mason said. "We were all nervous. It was clear to us just how desperately that boy wanted to be part of the school again. He was under a lot of pressure. He knew we were working for him, even though we were putting him through the mill," the headteacher said.

"He came into the assessment alone, with no parents or supportive staff. I said to him: 'We've been told you have something to say.' He said 'Yes', and in an almost military fashion he stood up and said: 'I want people to trust me again and I want my parents to be proud of me.' His face was very composed but his hands trembled throughout. And we said we trusted him now and felt sure his parents were proud of him.

"And when we said he could stay, he beamed and shot upstairs to tell his friends."

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