Giving 'naughty children' the chance to make fresh start
DAVID CLENSY meets Alison Salway, headteacher at south Bristol's new pupil referral unit, Lansdown Park, as the school reaches the end of its first year of dealing with the area's most challenging children.
THEY have often been the bane of their teachers lives for years by the time they arrive Lansdown Park Pupil Referral Unit – the specialist centre that takes on the challenge of transforming south Bristol's most difficult students.
This is where the "naughty children" end up when they've pushed things just that bit too far in the mainstream system.
Many have been expelled from their own schools. They all have a long history of bad behaviour, and almost inevitably, low academic achievement.
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But Lansdown Park's head teacher Alison Salway is a woman who likes a challenge. Expecting to find the pupil referral unit to be the academic equivalent of Borstal, I was in for a surprise from the moment I arrived at the Whitchurch site.
The unit relocated here from its previous home in the middle of Hartcliffe last year, but since arriving in these more green and pleasant surroundings, new head teacher Alison has transformed the school.
Far from being an authoritarian holding pen for life's waifs and strays, Alison has designed the school to be warm and welcoming – relaxed even – a place where transformations can take place, and lives can be turned around.
For Alison it's been a long-held dream to create the school from scratch. "I worked as a teacher in mainstream schools in London and then Bath for 25 years," she explains. "I taught English and I also took on an additional role in special needs teaching.
"But about 12 years ago, I began to realise that the provisions were in place for most kinds of special needs – there were excellent provisions for blind and partially-sighted children, excellent conditions for deaf children, but I felt the special needs group that wasn't being fully catered for in mainstream education was those with behavioural special needs.
"I was keen to do something about it. I had this vision of a pupil referral unit that didn't punish the more challenging children; that didn't keep putting them down and destroying their confidence, but which instead built up their self-respect, built up their self-belief, and in so-doing, improved their behaviour and their academic focus.
"I worked for six years in a secure unit, and got some valuable experience about the next stage in the downward spiral that some of these children might have been heading towards if they'd not come here to have their lives turned around.
"Then when this job came up, I jumped at the opportunity, because I knew it would be my chance to create the school I'd always dreamed of running."
The change of location meant the local authority was able to give Alison an almost free rein on how she designed the redevelopment of the new unit – in the former Stockwood Green Primary School building on Stockwood Lane.
"I could see how well this would work," she says. "When you're dealing with these children, the real aim is to create a calming environment – an environment that encourages them to work, that makes them want to focus, rather than to misbehave.
"In the old building the classrooms just looked out on to a council estate. Here they look out on to green playing fields, with trees beyond."
In the foreground, Alison has had an orchard planted, and staff and pupils at the school have built a series of raised beds, in which they are growing herbs and vegetables. There is a hen house, with a recently arrived new brood of chicks, and a spaniel and a Jack Russell are scampering between the apple trees playfully. It is an idyllic scene.
"If the children have this to look out on, they're already in more pleasant spirits, before we've done anything," Alison says.
"The dogs are members of staff – they're our school dogs, Coco and Benjie. They're a calming influence – the pupils can stroke them, and it's really therapeutic.
"They can ask permission to take them for a walk – which is teaching them social skills and about taking responsibility, and more than anything, the pupils look out from their classrooms at Coco and Benjie playing happily together, and it teaches them something subconsciously about them playing together nicely."
The calmness is striking as you walk through the unit – partly as a result of the chilled-out classical music being pumped through speakers in the corridor ceilings – which may sound a bit One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but has been proven to have the desired effect on the youngsters.
But the colour scheme chosen by Alison is also well thought-through, with calming blues and greens throughout.
"You won't find anything red throughout the building, except in the hall, which is where the children spend their break time," Alison says. "It's more difficult to concentrate with red decor – it can subliminally direct you towards aggression."
The hall is unlike any school hall I've seen before – with table tennis and pool tables, plush leather sofas and books and magazines dotted about, almost as if you're in somebody's living room.
"That's the idea," Alison says. "We try to do everything subliminally. If there are books and magazines laying around, it might just encourage the children to read more.
"We also have a screen in here, with television programmes projected on to it during breaks and lunchtime. We show documentaries and news programmes, educational things, but we find just the background noise of the television puts these children at ease and actually stops them fighting.
"Some people may say, 'why are these children being given all these privileges, treats and day trips?' – I can understand people thinking that, but this isn't about rewarding bad behaviour. It's about starting again from scratch with these youngsters, giving them another chance to make something of their lives.
"There is always an underlying reason for these behavioural problems. These children tend to come from areas of social deprivation, often from single-parent or troubled families, and sometimes we're occupied with holding them together while their world is falling apart around them.
"Some have had such under-privileged upbringings compared to the norm, that taking them out for trips and activities is giving them experiences that the rest of us take for granted. We went for a beach barbecue to mark the end of term the other day, and for some of these kids it was the first time they had ever seen the sea."
The school has around 40 children at any one time. With six full time teaching staff – the excellent pupil-teacher ratio lets the unit work closer with individuals, in a way that teachers in mainstream environments simply can't afford.
"Gradually we build up a mutual respect," Alison explains. "We're not like a normal school with a set year. Pupils arrive here on a fortnightly rolling in-take, and when we've turned them around we move them on to the next stage in their journey.
"For the first two weeks we work with the new in-take separately, in a special induction unit, so that by the time they are integrated with the existing pupils, they've already calmed down considerably, and don't act as a bad influence coming into the classrooms every two weeks.
"That's a system that we have been shown by St Matthias Pupil Referral Unit – our sister unit for north Bristol. They've demonstrated how well it works, so we followed their lead with that."
Alison has just received the unit's first Ofsted report, which pays particular regard to Alison's leadership and to the unit's ability to transform the behaviour of the students through developing increased levels of self-confidence.
Alison's subliminal messages seem to be working.
"For example, we put potted plants on dangerous corners in corridors rather than 'Do Not Run' signs," she says. "Subliminally the children see the plants and know they're not supposed to run there, without somebody shouting at them or bossing them about with a sign.
"The subliminal message that they're being trusted to act responsibly works well. Our displays are never destroyed, even the children's toilets stay immaculate, because the children take pride in being given a more adult environment to work in.
"Ultimately, I believe we have to give these youngsters another chance in life. We need to tackle the route cause of their bad behaviour, rather than punishing the behaviour itself.
"My ambition is always that they will come out of here and be able to lead a decent life, earn a living for themselves, and move on to better things. That's really what it's all about."