Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Having a more positive input


Although reducing the number of NEETs has been a government priority for some time, the numbers stubbornly refuse to fall. Liz Lightfoot looks at two initiatives targeting young people with behavioural problems which are reducing exclusions and encouraging students to stay in education longer.

The current recession makes it extremely unlikely that the government will reach its target to reduce the proportion of 16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training (NEET) by 2 per cent - from 9.6 per cent in 2004 to 7.6 per cent in 2010. In fact, the number of NEETs rose from 9.7 per cent in 2007 to 10.3 per cent in 2008 and the end-of-year 2009 figure is unlikely to be any lower.

Closer scrutiny shows that schools and colleges are already playing their part. The proportion in education and training was at its highest ever rate of just under 80 per cent in 2008. It was the seven per cent decrease in employment which brought down the overall figures.

No one claims it is easy to convert disengaged teenagers - often dealing with emotional or mental health issues - into productive adults. However, two very different initiatives appear to be having a significant influence on reducing the number of permanent exclusions - without compromising the education of other students - and increasing the likelihood of keeping young people in education or training past age 16.

The first, at Mount Grace School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, involves the conversion of its unit for the most badly behaved students into a hi-tech Retreat and the introduction of an online learning programme. There are no chairs to be thrown in the virtual classroom. If students become abusive, the online teachers have a swift and effective remedy - they can switch off the microphones and lock the keyboards.

The second, in north Norfolk, has seen permanent exclusions sharply reduced by a partnership between 88 primaries, 12 high schools and three special schools coordinated and supported by the Douglas Bader Centre in Coltishall, the area's pupil referral unit (PRU).

The scheme is a model for the behaviour and attendance partnership approach recommended in Sir Alan Steer's pupil behaviour review for the government and relies on all schools taking joint responsibility for the most disturbed pupils in their area.

Calmer classrooms

School leaders involved in both initiatives say exclusions have been reduced, attendance has improved and there has been a measurable impact on standards as the classrooms become calmer places.

Since the transformation of the Retreat in the school grounds at Mount Grace, the proportion of the school's pupils achieving five or more A*-C passes has gone up from 43 per cent in 2005 to 64 per cent this year. Including maths and English it went up from 19 per cent to 42 per cent over the same period.

Martin Tate, the assistant headteacher who oversees the Retreat, says attendance in year 11 has also risen steadily. "There are a number of reasons for the improvement in exam results and one of them has to do with taking the worst elements of behaviour out of the classroom."

Once in the Retreat the students can continue their studies in a calm, supportive environment away from the distraction of the classroom. Students work in private cubicles overseen by an experienced teacher and a classroom assistant, both skilled in behaviour management and de-escalation techniques to calm students down and defuse their anger.

"They have been miscreants at a serious level with behaviour which would normally result in permanent exclusion and that is not good for the child. We offer an alternative which avoids permanent exclusion and gives them the opportunity to take a minimum of five GCSEs," says Martin.

Most of the students - there are four studying online in the Retreat at present - take three to five modules from Accipio Learning, an online education specialist. The modules are taught by subject teachers who interact in real time with the students in the virtual lessons which aim to simulate a real school as far as possible. There is even an online prom for leavers.

The lessons are run up to three times a day, which helps with subject combinations, and are recorded, making it easier for students to go over the work at their own pace or catch up with the ones they have missed. In addition most of the Retreat students join mainstream classes for BTEC courses in subjects such as business studies and sports studies. There is also a high take up for GCSE art, taught by the Retreat teacher.

Before the introduction of the online learning the pupils were difficult to calm down when they came into school in the morning. "All that has changed because they have to get plugged into the lesson. It won't wait for them," Martin says.

Online lessons

Peter Baker, Mount Grace's headteacher, says the set-up has proved that it is not the subjects that students are rejecting but the conventional classroom environment. "By removing students from this space they are given a new lease on learning. Wearing a headset with a microphone in front of a computer screen, students are free from distraction and disruption."

Lessons last 45 minutes but the 26 Leader January 2010 students tend to log on earlier for the chance to chat to their peers and the teacher. "In a normal classroom environment, these students would be unlikely ever to voice questions or concerns about their work or things they have not understood in a lesson," says Peter.

The Retreat has lost its stigma as the place where very naughty pupils went as a punishment. Now it is seen as an alternative learning environment and some other pupils on a reduced timetable are allowed to use its stock of computers to help them catch up.

However, there is a cost involved - the price of a contract for students doing five Accipio subjects is 6,000 on top of the salaries for the two permanent members of staff in the Retreat, the running costs and ICT infrastructure.

"One learning place is paid for out of inclusion money, the rest comes out of school funds. There is a debate to be had about funding," says Martin.

"These children are highly likely to have faced permanent exclusion which would have cost the local authorities between 12,000 and 20,000 at a high cost specialist unit. We are a small school heavily weighted towards the younger pupils at present so there is not a lot of money about."

Shared responsibility

In north Norfolk, the coordinated approach means primaries, secondaries, special schools and the Douglas Bader Centre share responsibility for all the pupils in the area. "There is a continuum of intervention and support," says Justin Blocksidge, Douglas Bader's headteacher.

Of the centre's 35 staff, seven of the most senior spend half the week in secondary schools supporting pupils at risk of exclusion and gathering intelligence to help arrange managed moves for pupils reaching the end of the road at their schools. Support for primary schools starts with a conversation and can lead to either a visit by a member of the centre's staff to the school or to the pupil attending the centre for short sessions.

Each school takes some of the most difficult pupils according to a points system under which they lose points for excluding a child and gain them for taking in one excluded from somewhere else. Those that have excluded more pupils than they have accepted have minus points and are looked at first when a difficult child needs placing. It is not a rigid system, however, and there might be good reasons why a school cannot accommodate a pupil, for instance if it already has a full and challenging year group.

Since the partnership was established - first as a pilot and then formalised - the number of permanent exclusions has fallen from ten in 2005-06 to six in 2008-09 and managed moves have more than halved, from 35 to 16.

Douglas Bader provides support for 180 primary and secondary pupils who attend sessions at the centre plus 55 who are dual registered with both the centre and their school. A further 22 are on the centre's roll.

"The basis for all our work with pupils is personalised learning and building up plans so we reach a positive post-16 destination," says Justin. All but three of the 41 leavers this year went on to college, training or full-time work, slightly down on the previous two years when it was 100 per cent.

Communication skills

Some people are surprised that primary school pupils are in the same centre as some of the most diffificult 16-year-olds in the area but Justin says that, provided it is carefully managed, older pupils can provide support and nurture for younger ones.

"The older ones help the younger to develop communication and social skills. We find they are often able to communicate with and relate to someone closer to their age than an adult."

One of his enduring memories is of a burly, street-wise 16-year-old with a pretend rabbit hat on his head, handing around teacups to primary pupils. "He was sitting with them in a very nurturing way. It gives younger pupils a good experience of older pupils and gives the older ones confidence that they can take on responsibility."

All schools have benefited from the partnership says Keith Owen, the admissions and attendance officer of Reepham High School in Norwich.

"It has helped with attendance and behaviour and the managed moves system has kept more children in school. Sometimes reshuffling the pack and giving them a second chance works wonders."

He adds: "We greatly value the input from Douglas Bader staff. In fact we would like more of their time."

Liz Lightfoot is a freelance education writer.

Find out more...

For more information on Accipio, ASCL's preferred supplier for online education provision, visit www.accipio.co.uk

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