As ministers launch a new attack on truancy, Julie Morrice reports on a centre which is transforming attitudes and young lives in the Borders
The head of the Wilton Centre in Hawick has a secret supply of chocolate biscuits in his tiny office. Given the demands of working here, perhaps Douglas Wilson should be handing out six-packs of caramel wafers at the door.
Established in 1996, the centre provides "a local, integrated social work and education service for young people of secondary school age experiencing serious social, emotional and behavioural difficulties". One member of Wilson's management team puts it in a nutshell: "People working here have to be able to exude calm authority" - with or without the aid of caramel wafers.
Housed in a former primary school building, the centre has spacious, informal classrooms, a large carpeted hall with a basketball hoop at one end, and an air of friendliness and warmth. The young people who come to it have a range of difficulties, but here they find a level of acceptance and understanding that can transform their lives.
The key to running the Wilton Centre is the staff's "unconditional regard" for the young people. They do not condone disruptive behaviour, but can offer a more flexible response to it than mainstream schools. "These are the sort of kids who in the ordinary school system are either wholly anonymous or a complete pain in the backside," says Jimmy Hawthorn, who as a member of the centre's management group, and group manager for children and families in the social work department, is closely involved.
Before the Wilton Centre opened, many of its young people would have been sent to residential schools. "It was the Botany Bay syndrome," says Hawthorn. "These were the kids we would want to do work with on family relationships, and what were we doing? Sending them away! We were losing three or four years with them, and at Pounds 30,000 per placement in a residential school, it made neither good educational nor good financial sense." In May 1996, before the centre opened, 26 young people from the Borders were in residential schools. In August 1998, there are nine.
Now young people who have serious problems at secondary school can be referred to the Wilton, which will work in partnership with the school and, in many cases, gradually encourage the child back into mainstream education. At present, about half the young people attending the Wilton also spend some time in their local secondary school.
"He just didn't like the high school," says Edith Mackenzie, looking fondly at her son Michael who, at 13, towers above her. "His brothers didn't like the school either, but he just wouldn't go at all. Since he's been coming here he's far less moody at home, much less up and down." Michael has just built a tiny balsa-wood sailboard and has been down on his hands and knees powering it across the carpet with a blow heater, but now he looks shyly at his shoes. "He knows we like him," says a member of staff. "And he trusts us. Don't you?" Michael relents and gives a broad smile.
Generalising about the success of the centre is difficult, but the attendance figures give some idea of the changes made in young people's lives. Of the 30 young people attending the centre, two-thirds have attendance rates of more than 80 per cent, and only two are turning up less than half the time.
Given that many of these young people were referred after months of complete non-attendance at school, the figures are impressive. The caring environment plays a large part in those results but, as Jimmy Hawthorn puts it, "What you see here is the tip of the iceberg - if all the links weren't there under the surface, it would come adrift."
Douglas Wilson, the head of the centre, explains: "The Borders has a history of very good relationships between education and social work. There has been a lot of co-operation on the ground and a willingness to work together with kids with emotional difficulties." In 1989 the Borders council appointed behaviour support teachers to secondary schools. "It was a bit back-to-front," says Wilson, "because having appointed the staff, we then had to develop a coherent policy for behaviour support." That was finalised in 1991, with strands covering the support staff in secondaries; peripatetic support staff for primary schools; and regional support facilities of which Wilton is the core.
"I felt that unless we created a provision that was part of a much bigger whole, it wouldn't do any good," says Wilson. "What we do here is dependent on the relationships we can establish with social work, with teachers, psychiatrists and parents."
Networking is at the heart of the Wilton. Each of the Borders' nine secondary schools is linked to the centre through a "linkworker", a member of the Wilton staff who visits the school for at least half a day each week to help the school in its support of young people causing them concern. This, if you like, is the prevention arm of the Wilton, trying to catch young people before they get into serious difficulties. The linkworkers can offer individual counselling or run small groups, whatever is required by the school and the pupils.
That provision is extended in the Wilton's outreach programmes run in the evenings and holidays in conjunction with other agencies such as community education. These offer group work for young people on subjects such as social skills, self-confidence, and difficulties with peer relationships. The Wilton is the result of a long gestation and a lot of thought. "We had a very strong sense of what we wanted to do and a clear idea of who the youngsters were going to be," says Wilson.
But any new resource is bound to come up against problems, and the Wilton is no exception. Expectations of the new centre were high, perhaps too high. "Changing established patterns of behaviour is difficult," says Jimmy Hawthorn. "All of us have difficulty in changing our behaviour. This is not an Elastoplast job. We're talking about a lifetime's work."
A new, high-profile resource can also cause rancour. "A provision like this does expose system fault lines elsewhere," says Hawthorn. "If we're succeeding, does that mean you have been failing? You need to have robust, mature relationships with schools to avoid that kind of feeling."
But the messages coming from the Wilton are positive ones. Less than two years since it opened, Douglas Wilson feels the centre is well-established and has built up a useful network. He hopes to expand therapeutic work over the next two to three years and bring the health professionals involved with young people into closer partnership with education and social work staff.
"The Borders is quite advanced in the support it generally offers young people," says Hawthorn. "People don't realise how lucky they are to have the Wilton. It's a good resource, and like all precious things it needs looking after."
JOHN A CASE HISTORY
"John" came to the Wilton Centre straight from primary school. "He was academically quite able," says Gareth Stott, his Wilton keyworker, "but he'd missed a lot of education." During his six-week assessment it emerged that John found it difficult to fit in to groups, that he was very competitive and when faced with any perceived failure (such as losing at a game), he would blow up and become verbally aggressive.
"He was desperate to go to mainstream high school," says Mr Stott. "He was always asking 'Why does it have to be me who goes to the Wilton?' and putting the blame elsewhere. Nevertheless, he made good progress and began attending classes at his local secondary.
"Initially it was non-academic subjects," says Mr Stott. "He started with two periods of PE a week, then over the year we gradually added other subjects. " John had in-class support, but as his time in school increased, so the support decreased. Now he only has support in those classes where he has difficulty - about one third in an almost full timetable.
"If he felt he was going to lose it in class, he agreed with his support teacher that he would walk out," says Mr Stott. In that kind of situation, communication with school staff is vital. "It was very important to get staff on our side, and they responded well." John no longer comes to the Wilton, but the link has not been broken. His support teacher will be with him well into this year, and Mr Stott visits his family to keep them up to date. "They are very supportive," he says. "Families usually are, because we can effect positive change. People want to be here, and their families want them to be here. We must be doing something right."