Horse-whisperer offers last chance to expelled children

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As a school uniform policy, it is probably unique. Pupils are required to wear old clothes that can get dirty. But they do attend a unique school - a kind of last-chance saloon for children expelled from mainstream schools who would otherwise be on the streets. Even pupil referral units - nicknamed "sin bins" - have given up on some of them.

The Learning to Listen Centre in Ilton, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, is run by Sarah Kreutzer, a qualified instructor in the techniques of the horse-whisperer Monty Roberts. She believes that by getting pupils to communicate with the animals on her farm, Hill Top, she can help them to discard some of the baggage that led to them rejecting mainstream schools.

The school, which is registered with the Department for Education and Skills, has had remarkable success since it opened in September - all of its pupils have been able to return to mainstream schools or complete their education at Hill Top and get a job, or go on to college.

Dwayne Layton, aged 15, said his first impressions of the school were that it was "rubbish", "a stinking farm". But soon he was converted, and put to workwith the horses, feeding the pigs and helping James Smart, a former pupil, look after a herd of cows.

"I didn't like school," he said, "but as soon as I was mates with James I began to like it here."

James was expelled from several schools before ending up at the farm. "I didn't really like it at first - then I got started with the horses," he said. "Then I got bored with that, but started learning the skills you need for a job."

James, now 17, works full-time at the farm and lives on the estate, having taken a farming vocational qualification. "I'd have ended up with a rubbish job if I hadn't come here," he said. "I was a cheeky sod. I always answered back. I was trying to show off."

Ms Kreutzer, who runs the school with her husband, Rob, whose family has farmed in the area for three generations, believes having had similar experiences has helped the venture.

"It took me a while to find my way in this world - but I am one of the lucky ones," she said. "As a child, life was perfect - Australian sunshine, ponies galore and a wonderful, loving family." But then her parents split up and she had to move back to England with her mother. "The affluent days were replaced by desperate times, made all the more difficult on discovering the man I called my father was not my father at all ... The hurt and anger I felt spilt over, causing me to rebel against my mother, and all men in general."

The centre can cater for eight pupils aged 14 to 16. There are formal lessons - Dwayne is to take a maths GCSE next year - and the school has one fully trained teacher. It has been approved by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog.

Pupils also learn such skills as welding, horse riding, animal husbandry, milking, dry-stone walling and tractor driving. Each child draws up a behaviour contract - and is asked questions such as: "What do you think should happen if you hurt one of the animals?"

Mr Kreutzer said: "Even if they come here with a chequered history we can put that out of our minds and give them respect from the outset. They have to earn the right to look after the animals."

Dwayne started off bottle-feeding four sheep, and now looks after three dozen.

Ms Kreutzer would like to see a network of centres around the country - or further afield. Two visitors from South Africa are to consider whether its brand of education could be exported.

"It wouldn't necessarily be just working with animals," Ms Kreutzer said. "You could do it through music, too."

Jonathan Tearle, head of Mowbray School in Bedale, said of the centre: "Their work enabled one very challenging pupil to develop a much more positive attitude. This young man described 'learning to listen' as being 'ace' - from him, this is high praise indeed."