Where feelings run high

15th October 2004 at 01:00
No one is angry. Instead, teachers and psychologists in Southampton have put emotional literacy at the top of their agenda - with remarkable results for both pupil happiness and achievement. Lisa Hutchins reports

FPerhaps we should all have one: a comfy corner where we can go when the hurly-burly becomes too much, a calm and safe place. At Hightown primary school in Southampton, pupils have just such a retreat. It has calm colours and cushions, and help from two non-judgemental classroom assistants whose job is specifically to help pupils in crisis find a place and a way to cool down.

Lorraine Englefield and Tracey Little have made a request box for pupils who wish to talk to them in strictest confidence: pupils seal their requests in envelopes. And for playtimes, they have organised a buddy system so that no pupil should feel isolated. The two women are both experienced classroom assistants. "We know when our pupils need time out," says Ms Little. "We know them so well. We have had very damaged children, who have very difficult lives at home, just go to sleep in the comfy corner."

The two women are known as Elsas (emotional literacy support assistants) the first two such appointments to be made in the country. Their local education authority, Southampton, has put emotional literacy as one of the top three priorities in its education development plan, the first city in the world to do so. What prompted psychologists, educationists and ultimately politicians to take such a decision was the effect their early experiments had in cutting pupil exclusions and in reducing the numbers needing statements of special educational needs. Now they are hoping that Whitehall will recommend their policy as one that the rest of the country should adopt.

At Hightown, the school's espousal of emotional literacy - it has been following the policy for three years - has led to a dramatic improvement in its Sats results. This year, 92 per cent of pupils sitting key stage 2 tests achieved Level 4 or above, compared to 67 per cent the year before.

There have also been consistent year-on-year improvements at key stage 1.

Having to get tough with pupils has also become easier: fixed-term exclusions have been cut by two thirds - this in a school where nearly half the pupils are eligibile for free school meals and 40 per cent have special needs.

"We look at each child who is having difficulties and ask, 'What might work for this child?' We never say to a class teacher: 'That is your problem, get on with it'," says Sue Bailey, the headteacher. "If a child is in difficulties, we will do everything in our power to help that child, but not at the expense of other children. And we will not reward bad behaviour.

Children learn that if they can recognise their own emotions in time, we are there to help."

Mrs Bailey sees emotional literacy as the final piece in a jigsaw which includes a robust behaviour policy, committed staff, a breakfast club and regeneration cash to improve the school fabric. Its buildings, in Thornhill, a deprived area in the north of the city with a high rate of teenage pregnancy, had been in disrepair.

But what has made the biggest impact, in her opinion, is the appointment of the two Elsas to act as emotional crutches to fragile youngsters.

"Our Elsas were two very experienced learning support assistants who know the area, know the children and are there for them," she says. "Today, we have more children leaving our school who can read and write and who know how to handle their own emotions. I don't go along with soppy ideals about 'being here just to nurture them'.

"We are here to educate them. If children have emotional problems which are getting in the way of their school work and changing their behaviour, we need to deal with them, because no-one else will. It is unusual now to exclude a child; it is unusual to have fights; it is no longer cool here to mess about or fight."

Lorraine Englefield and Tracey Little, preparing for the new term in their bright spacious room, go over their bible: materials prepared for them by Southampton's psychology service. Their work might involve them in assemblies, helping a child with problems or working on whole-class or whole-school projects.

They recently identified empathy as an area to concentrate on. "We have spent a lot of time trying to get it right," says Ms Englefield. "We gave every teacher a checklist for every pupil - the teacher they were just about to leave, who knew that child that little bit better. We found pupils' perceptions of themselves can be very misleading - we get a better picture from the teacher checklist."

Using the results as a baseline, they have devised a project targeting children who scored below average. When the programme is complete, the results will be assessed against the checklists again.

Following that, work is planned on co-operative play. In interventions with individual children, they use strictly-defined targets, such as 'to sit appropriately in class' or even 'to have a go without worrying about getting it wrong' to help children achieve their goals.

Five years ago, Southampton's educational psychologists began work on a new idea for cutting school exclusions and statementing. The idea was to put emotional literacy at the heart of every school. Elizabeth Herrick, principal educational psychologist for the city, says that the service realised something needed to be done. "The numbers ( statements and exclusions) had gone up dramatically, as they had across the country," she says. "We were working on anger management and on projects to target the most at-risk children."

The man supervising the project is Adrian Faupel, a psychology tutor at Southampton University. "Southampton is no different from anywhere else," he says. "We have some very good schools and some with work to do. My personal satisfaction comes from work in schools, and from the way the DfES has begun to listen.

"Five years ago we were out on a limb. Now emotional literacy is part of the DfES core thinking. One feels one has made some sort of impact which has been recognised as an important part of what school is about."

The results speak for themselves. According to Whitehall statistics, in 1999 2.8 per cent of the city's pupils, around 33,000, had a statement of special educational needs. By 2003 that had fallen to 1.8 per cent. In 199899, 0.14 per cent of pupils were permanently excluded; by 20012, the latest for which figures are available, it was 0.07 per cent.

The ideas of Mr Faupel and his team have been published in guides for primary and secondary schools. They set out a practical way to audit pupils' skills in the five areas: motivation, self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation and social skills.

"The most important thing has been giving teachers and schools the right to put this sort of thing in the classroom," says Mr Faupel. "There has been so much concentration on subject over the last 20 years, and on academic outcomes. What we now need to ensure is that this (emotional literacy) is part of the curriculum for every child."

Assessment is carried out through checklists filled in by teachers, pupils and parents. These are then scored to give an overall picture of an individual's strengths and weaknesses. Using this as a baseline, schools can identify particular areas where intervention will be helpful. Each checklist should take no more than 10 minutes to complete.

The most common problems identified are: pupils who are unable to take constructive criticism; those who are bad losers and cause trouble; boys and girls unable to shut out distractions and focus on their work; youngsters who talk too much and can't listen; and those who fail to ask for help.

Once an assessment has been done, there are practical strategies for intervention. Teachers are trained to use non-judgemental language when helping youngsters confront problems. They are encouraged to develop an approach that tackles poor behaviour at the same time as strengthening pupils' sense of self-worth. They also use stories to create "therapeutic metaphors", stories that pupils can identify with to help them solve problems; the use of games; developing behavioural contracts; and developing a "feelings" vocabulary.

The results achieved will be as individual as the children involved- but the authors of the project say their methods can contribute to many outcomes: improved behaviour, better mental health, increased attendance and raised standards.

Southampton has formed an emotional literacy interest group, a forum for those who take the subject seriously. The result is that various schools have experimented to carry the strategy further. At one primary where many pupils had special educational needs, there is a project to increase friendship skills among unpopular children. First, parents, teachers and children were interviewed to find out what they thought. Then objective measures were used to identify behavioural problems. The subject became the focus of PSHE lessons and circle time. Today the children are much more aware of their behaviour and their responsibility for some of their problems in their friendships.

At a secondary school with poor attendance among pupils who were worried about bullying, another project was organised. Attendance had been raised as an issue by inspectors. The project aimed to increase the assertiveness skills of those who were picked on .

A school conference on bullying led to a revised anti-bullying policy. The timetable was tweaked to include more social skills courses. Gradually attendance among the pupils who had complained went up as fear of being bullied went down.

Southampton is piloting city-wide projects to develop the emotional literacy agenda. Peter Sharp, a psychologist and emotional literacy expert who has been working with the city, has completed a developmental mapping exercise of social, emotional and behavioural skills for the DfES. It attempts to provide the first benchmark of such skills, and has been endorsed as part of the government's primary strategy. Thanks to Southampton, emotional literacy can now be quantified in terms that mean it can be assessed and practically included across the curriculum.

"From the inception of the project we recognised that we needed to benchmark where we were starting from," says Mr Sharp. "Where we carried out consultations and trials, the schools were very involved, and were encouraged to report back."

He said the support of senior managers had been vital to Southampton: "It legitimises the work and means there is an increased chance of it being taken seriously. I have found that, with emotional literacy, I have been pushing at an open door."

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