Together we can make it

28th September 2001 at 01:00
A Devon school has developed a scheme to help pupils deal with family break-ups - and in the process won much-needed funding. Wendy Wallace reports

Tiverton high school, set in the rolling greenery of mid-Devon, is reached on clean, empty roads that pass lakes and fields full of grazing cattle. But the lush landscape can deceive; poverty levels here outstrip those of nearby towns, as do rates of crime and domestic disturbance. Achievement at the school is lower than the national average (40 per cent of pupils achieve five A*-C grades at GCSE), truancy is higher and only 60 per cent of the 1,200 students live with both natural parents.

Headteacher Katrina Borowski, who came to Tiverton from a Plymouth school two-and-a-half years ago, is increasing the emphasis on pastoral care. "Staff are very caring towards each other and that spills over," she says. "We look at the children as whole people, taking into account what's happening at home. Inevitably, some children have an awful lot of baggage, which means they can't focus on what they're here to do."

The school's Preparation for Adult Life (Pal) programme covers all years for one period a week. "The kids can't get enough of it," says Ms Borowski. "It's a breath of fresh air after the rigidity of the national curriculum." Pal covers everything from rules and bullying in Year 7 to study skills, preparation for work experience and choices for key stage 4 further up the school. "It is the cornerstone," she says. "It gives everything else relevance."

Tiverton high is one of two schools to have won pound;20,000 in the annual Barclays New Futures Challenge award, for a scheme that aims to improve relationships in and out of school. Tiverton's bid had its genesis in a Pal project run last year aimed at children going through family break-up.

Changing Families was run by Nina Wroe, a former deputy head in the county, from the education welfare service. Initially targeting Year 8 children, she asked for volunteers who could "help others going through family restructuring". Some pupils were also pointed in the direction of the project by tutors. The 12-session scheme used role-play, problem-solving and outdoor activities to help pupils address the emotions relating to family break-up and the introduction of new step-parents and siblings - often, says Ms Wroe, more difficult than the original divorce.

The group produced a magazine at the end of the year, featuring the story of a fictional family break-up - "raising questions that you might like to talk over with your friends" - and distributed it to all students. Parents were also asked to get involved, and had to give permission for their children to join the group. "I found no hostility from parents," says Ms Wroe. "They want the help for their youngsters."

Members of the 20-strong group say they benefited. "We had a chance to get feelings out," says 14-year-old Katie Yeo. "You could put things that had happened to you into the role-play, and get to understand what other people in your family are feeling."

"It's fun," says Elizabeth Maharaja, now in Year 9. "It helps you get along with people. We didn't think we needed help. But we all benefited in different ways."

Ms Wroe believes a traumatic experience can diminish or enrich. "Too often, they're treated as problem children rather than children with problems," she says. "Many are suffering long-term, low-level depression, which is one of the most life-diminishing experiences." She cites US research that implicates family breakdown in a range of difficulties, some of which may not show up for years. "These children are more likely to be involved in drug or alcohol abuse, to abscond from school, and to have medical problems and difficulty with social relationships."

The pound;20,000 will enable Tiverton to run the Changing Families project again with a new Year 8 group; the school also plans to involve a Year 6 class from a feeder primary, and Year 12 FE students at neighbouring East Devon college. The project - which is to be run by a steering committee comprising mostly students - will also organise a range of related activities, including parenting classes for children and adults together, and another for children only.

The focus on relationships in and out of the family should, says Ms Wroe, "lead to a significant change in the ethos of the school, with increased optimism leading to happier students, participating actively in school life and achieving to the full". But staff first have to dent the outlook that led one girl at the school, when asked what was certain about the next five years, to say: "I'll get married, have kids and get divorced."

Katrina Borowski believes rural deprivation and the associated educational problems are too often overlooked. Tiverton hit the headlines earlier this year when a protest against uniform regulations got out of hand, resulting in three permanent exclusions. But the ongoing issues of social exclusion are well camouflaged. The free school meals rate, at just over 10 per cent, is low. But this is a false marker, she says; there is a lingering stigma attached to claiming free meals despite the introduction of smart cards, and more families are in poorly paid jobs than unemployed. The many initiatives aimed at helping inner-city schools have bypassed rural Tiverton, which actually faces funding cuts this year of about 1 per cent.

"My kids lose out," says Ms Borowski. "And the school loses out financially. We have to look for funding elsewhere." The bank's pound;20,000 represents one-fifth of the school's entire curriculum budget. "To us, it's a lot of money."

Grange Academy, Kilmarnock, was joint winner with Tiverton high school, and will use its pound;20,000 to extend the teaching of sign language as a means of communication. In 1997, the school won pound;3,000, which it used to teach signing to pupils and staff. The work now will go out into the community to involve primary pupils and parents. For details of Barclays New Futures scheme and how to apply for awards ranging from pound;500 to pound;20,000, visit www.barclaysnewfutures.co.uk or contact Kallaway Ltd, 2 Portland Road, Holland Park, London W11 4LA; tel: 020 7221 7883. Headteachers of all eligible schools (UK secondary schools, sixth-form colleges and special schools) will automatically receive an entry pack in the autumn term

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