When vulnerable kids feel lost and alone

1st May 1998 at 01:00
The headteacher in the dining room felt a tap on her shoulder and a heard a voice say: "See that learning support. It's brilliant."

Kathleen Gibbons of St Kentigern's Academy in Blackburn explains the boy's enthusiasm. "He likes the attention and a laptop computer to take home at nights. He feels more important and happier."

The school has just over 1,000 pupils - 20 per cent on free school meals - and has not excluded a single child in the last three years. So the new scheme is unlikely to affect exclusion rates.

But now there seems to be more time and space to deal with a vulnerable child's learning needs.

"Often bad behaviour is caused not just by problems at home but by the classroom experience," says Mrs Gibbons. "Kids are lost in their learning and can't access the curriculum." Custody of a laptop, for example, and developing the associated cool IT skills helps improve self-esteem and encourage further achievement.

"We are not social workers," she stresses. "Ours is an educational agenda. If you can't do things, people perceive you in a certain way, affecting your self-esteem, and you carry that baggage with you for the rest of your life."

St Kentigern's appears to be dealing with vulnerable withdrawn children, rather than ones on the Richter scale. The scheme is termed "learning support facility", as they wish to get away from the idea of a physical base in the school segregated from the mainstream.

As far as possible pupils remain in class. Support assistant Marion McNeill, for example, may be in a science class to help a girl who is perfectly capable of managing the science but cannot understand the instructions because of weak literacy skills. She says: "I'm really enjoying helping these kids to achieve all they are capable of. There is a sense of making a difference. I've got time to get to know them and root for them."

Irene Dodd is senior teacher for learning support and the newly appointed co-ordinator. She sends a simple questionnaire to all the teachers of a child believed to be in need of support. Mrs Dodd will then see the child and if necessary liaise with outside agencies such as social workers. A profile and then an individual education plan is drawn up.

She concedes that the scheme is not a panacea, and a percentage of staff might still prefer to see disruptive pupils simply removed from their classrooms. "I don't want to make out it is a marshmallow. We still have children who don't attend or don't behave. But overall the classroom atmosphere is much better and we can see a difference in children's self-esteem and confidence."

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