When there's no friend to turn to

Two major contributions to better behaviour and learning are at risk as funding runs out. Neil Munro and Kay Smith report.

A BEFRIENDING scheme for more than 500 pupils with behaviour problems run by Barnardo's Scotland has made life easier for the youngsters and their schools and prevented many from being excluded, according to an evaluation published today (Friday).

But the benefits may be as fragile as the Scottish Executive's funding for the project - despite the initiative being exactly what ministers have called for as part of the drive to improve discipline and widen social inclusion.

A grant of pound;433,000, which has been used to recruit 117 volunteer befrienders in six areas of Scotland for the past three years, runs out next month. Barnardo's says there is no indication that the Executive will extend it or whether other sources can be found.

The report criticises "time-limited funding", particularly for innovative projects. These can involve building relationships with vulnerable people and therefore take longer to develop their work and prove credibility.

It warns that the approaching end of the funding period "causes conflict and demotivation".

Entitled You Can Talk To Your Friend, the report points out that early investment in improving behaviour pays off. The cost of pound;1,633 a year for a one-to-one befriender "seems a very small financial investment".

The service should not only be continued but enlarged, the report by Tish Traynor and Sarah Blackburn recommends. It has been "highly instrumental in contributing to positive change in children and young people at risk of social and educational exclusion".

The report states: "There is a general impression that the children and young people who have been befriended now have less trouble at school with their peers and their teachers.

"The caveat, however, is that the improved attitude and behaviour is fragile and in most instances easily disrupted if there are problems outside the school, particularly in the home."

None the less, the report concludes: "The picture was of children being more positively integrated with others and happy with the desired norms of behaviour and of school life. For children who could previously disrupt the entire class, this is indeed a bonus and a relief for the teachers."

Of 12 aspects investigated by the researchers, only two did not show improvement. These were being bullied and bullying others.

The befrienders are seen as a link with a "non-professional adult" who is not a teacher, social worker or parent. Befrienders are prepared to organise activities, provide a listening ear and be there as they "let off steam". They work with individual children, with families and with class groups.

The report acknowledges that not all positive changes can be attributed solely to befrienders, but the comments from teachers, project workers, parents and young people provide clear evidence that the service is highly valued.

Stella Andrews, head of St Columba's primary in Dundee, told The TES Scotland: "The benefits are wonderful. In my area, children are particularly needy and attention-seeking and the extra adults provide that attention.

"If they disappeared they would be sorely missed. The children would be back to playing the games they see on television and videos, mostly physical and aggressive."

St Columba's is one of the Dundee schools involved in the Barnardo's SPACE project (supporting primary-aged children early), which works with pupils from 39 of the city's 42 primaries. The other befriender projects are in Aberdeen, Bridge of Allan, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Tranent.

Graham Haddow, project leader in Dundee, said: "Without these volunteers, many more children in this area would be at risk of exclusion from school and the community within which they live."

Barnardo's buddies, Scotland Plus, 2-3

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