Education: 'Give us a child at seven . . .': Hesley Hall School has earned a British Standard award for its work with boys who have behavioural problems. Yet it has unfilled places, says Judith Judd

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The Independent Online
MIKE GRAY, head of Hesley Hall School, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire, surveys a class of seven-year-old boys who have emotional and behavioural difficulties. 'These are the lucky ones,' he says. Children have a much better chance of changing antisocial behaviour if they are offered help at seven. By the time they are 11 or 12 it may be too late.

Yet, despite the outcry over juvenile crime, Hesley Hall, which has just become the first school to win the coveted British Standards Institution BS 5750 award for high-quality management, has empty places. Past and potential offenders are among the 56 boys aged between 7 and 14 at the residential school. Some pupils have been sexually abused. Others are too disruptive and aggressive to attend ordinary schools. But staff believe they can equip most of them to return to their families and local schools and Mr Gray is angry that 7 of the 63 places are unfilled.

All the pupils are referred to the school and paid for by local authorities. The cost is pounds 21,000 per pupil per year for full boarding and cash-strapped councils are increasingly reluctant to pay. Mr Gray says the limited funds available tend to go to children with learning difficulties or autism who have articulate parents behind them. 'Our parents have a limited experience of life. They don't know what is available for their children,' Mr Gray argues.

So the school decided to apply for the BSI award, 'unashamedly' to promote itself. BS 5750 is the national standard for quality management systems and 13,500 organisations are registered - including manufacturers, construction companies, banks, garages and solicitors. To gain approval they have to list all the procedures involved in producing a product or service. Hesley Hall had to detail how it educated, fed and cared for its pupils and how it selected, appointed and trained staff. Terry Hoskin, principal of the Hesley Group of eight schools to which Hesley Hall belongs says: 'We cannot and will not say that things do not go wrong, but we have a standard and method that forces constant cross-checking of everything that is done, identifies problems and guarantees corrective action to follow.' The seven other schools are also applying for BSI accreditation.

At Hesley Hall the regime is impressive. Boys sit quietly at their desks in groups of no more than nine as teachers take them through the national curriculum. Classrooms are colourfully decorated with the boys' work. Some of the children have learning difficulties. There are seven full-time teachers and three part-timers; additional unqualified helpers mean that each class usually has two adults.

'Structure is the key,' says Mr Gray. 'We try to provide a secure and predictable environment in which we can help them to change.' One boy said that he hated returning to his children's home in the holidays because the rules about alcohol, solvents and sex were unclear. At Hesley Hall, he knew that if he misbehaved, he would be punished.

Mr Gray says staff expect verbal and physical attacks, sometimes for several years after a boy arrives, but they maintain a friendly relationship with their charges. A boy rushes up and presents him with a badge saying 'Filthy Animal' for a collection that hangs outside his study.

Out of school boys go swimming, sew, act, play the guitar and sing, and learn how to make a cup of tea and open a tin. Good behaviour is rewarded with privileges such as being allowed to stay up late and to go out alone at the weekend. The children's progress is reviewed every six months.

The splendid Victorian house in 13 acres of grounds has been used as a school since 1975. Its dormitories have different themes: in one, Snoopy parades around the walls, in another there are life-size figures of pop stars and in a third, flying saucers.

The school is proud that between 60 and 70 per cent of its boys eventually return to mainstream schools and their families. One 14-year-old, who arrived four years ago after attacking fellow pupils and teachers, left six months ago and is now successfully attending his local comprehensive in Humberside. Those who reach 14 and are still not ready to return to the community may go to one of the group's senior schools.

Is the price of a place at such a school worth paying at a time when public money is scarce? Mr Gray points out that pounds 21,000 is a modest amount compared with the price of keeping a boy in secure accommodation. He and his staff are confident that if a child's difficulties are spotted in time, they can transform his behaviour. 'We believe that children can learn and that they can also unlearn,' he says.