How the zeros become heroes

A primary school in Leeds is conducting an extraordinary experiment - taking back pupils who fail to flourish in a secondary-school environment. The scheme is producing some heart-warming results. Elaine Williams reports
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It took the death of former pupil for Peter Hall Jones, head of Little London primary school in Leeds, to act. The boy died in a stolen car that crashed while he was excluded from secondary school and Hall Jones decided he had seen too many lives wasted to stand aside any longer. Not long afterwards, when a local high school asked him if he would take on a boy who was not a former pupil but was struggling in secondary school, he and his staff agreed to have a go. Thus was born an extraordinary experiment - a primary school that takes in secondary age pupils who find they can't hack it in comprehensive schools.

"This was a young man who was unhappy at high school because he was immature," says Mr Hall Jones. "He found it difficult to fit in and cope with the horseplay. We felt our environment here might suit a sensitive child as a kind of fuel stop. We're not talking about taking trophies or pointing the finger at secondary schools. The idea is that these young people will come back to gain the confidence to move on." The boy was taken on as a "classroom assistant" helping with reception children for two days a week. Eventually he made it back into his secondary school. The experiment worked well, according to Sue Clark, the reception teacher. "At first I was a bit apprehensive - you can't have somebody freaking out with little ones around, but he was no problem whatsoever. As a reception teacher you tend to be mothering and he responded to that. He was automatically respected by the children and that gave him confidence. He learnt to cope with social relationships, and felt he was really contributing."

Hall Jones had felt increasingly frustrated that children who were learning during their years at his school were being excluded within a short time of moving to secondary. Rather than see young lives wasted he and his staff decided to take former pupils back and help to set them on their feet. Little London now has an arrangement with one of the city's pupil referral units that allows it to take excluded pupils from other secondary schools as well. In all, 10 young people have gone through the process.

In a small way therefore the school is helping to make a dent in a nationwide problem. Permanent exclusions are on the rise again after falling from a peak of 12,000 in 1997. Education Secretary Charles Clarke is so concerned that he has thrown £66m at the problem and is emphasising early intervention.

Reaching children early on in their lives is at the heart of Little London's mission. Its location - half a mile from Leeds's cool new centre and its Harvey Nichols store, but serving one of the poorest estates in Britain, could explain its philosophy. Little London is surrounded by four- lane trunk roads, and scarred by poverty and drug-related crime. Ten years ago it was destroyed in an arson attack. Out of the ashes has risen a thriving community school, a centre of excellence lauded by the Department for Education and Skills and the Cabinet Office, which now has a battery of after-school clubs run by artists, dancers, actors and sports coaches. It gives training opportunities to parents, operates a credit union to keep loan sharks at bay, and is now building a state-of-the-art sports and arts centre.

Its policy is never to exclude a pupil. Therefore it takes children from special schools and those excluded from other schools. It is amazing that Special Educational Needs in the school has been reduced from 40 per cent to less than 20 per cent and that since 1998 final year SATs scores have increased from 21 to 47 per cent in English and 26 to 67 per cent in maths. In a brave move, it has formed a partnership with Sweet Street pupil referral unit and takes some of its students. Education Leeds, the local education authority, is enthusiastic. "They give young people the chance to demonstrate what they can achieve," says Gary Nethercott, assistant chief executive.

The scheme has been given a cautious welcome by the Department for Education and Skills. A spokesman said that schools and local education authorities needed to think creatively about supporting young people while being tough about bad behaviour. "The Government welcomes any scheme that ensures young people continue to learn and stay in education," said a DfES spokesman.

The National Association of Head Teachers gives stronger backing to it. It is worth pursuing as a "potential answer" to help youngsters get back on the rails, says David Hart, its general secretary. But the success of such a scheme depended on the quality of the primary school head.

Mick Waters, chief education officer for Manchester, also praises the initiative. Another scheme he knows of enables secondary pupils to go back to their former primaries at the end of the day to do their homework. "They are going back to the place where teachers have a real relationship with them," he says. His authority is looking at new ways of making children who transfer to secondary school feel more of a sense of belonging. "Young people need to feel that."

The key is that Little London shows it really cares about the children it admits.

Richard Thorpe, who is 16, was helping out with sport and gym coaching as well as listening to pupils reading. He readily admits that he "blew it big time at secondary" and did his utmost to get excluded. "I just couldn't see the point of it all," he says. "I didn't want to learn. Here they treat you like an adult. People are really kind. Now I'm seeing it from the other side I just don't understand why I couldn't get on with teachers before." Richard is now taking maths and English GCSE and a course in sports and leisure at college and hopes that he will find work in Little London's new community art and sports centre. Staff at the school have thought long and hard how they should prepare children for the world beyond school. Their brand of intensive nurturing has to be the way forward, they believe. "We offer loads of mentoring and personal targets and our pupils are listened to," says Hall Jones. "They are encouraged to be self-disciplined through rewards and sanctions." Little London is now working with a Leeds high school with a similar ethos to ease the transfer to secondary.

Hall Jones's philosophy is supported by Anne Matthias, head of Oakwood School, another Leeds primary, who also found herself taking in a former pupil excluded from secondary. The boy came back part-time for a few weeks "as a much-needed breathing space", she says. "When pupils are excluded their self-image is damaged, but when this boy came back to 'help out' he was admired as a responsible person."

But Ms Matthias is realistic. Each case is different, she says. Not all children can be given a safe haven in their former primary school. So schools have to be careful. Some heads might baulk at taking on older excluded pupils, Hall Jones admits. But the idea has worked in the cases where he has tried it. "I know these teenagers are not going to hit or bully my pupils because they feel responsible," he says. They come here feeling at the bottom of the heap. I am sure they were frightful in secondary school but here they are admired and can be themselves again. They are wanted."

'She felt it was a safe place to come, people liked her'

When Sue Gallie-Hall asked Little London for help with her daughter Celie, head Peter Hall Jones agreed to take her on as a classroom assistant while she was found a place in college. She had been a star pupil at Little London who achieved level fives in her final year SATs - but was excluded by her secondary school at 14. "She was bright and happy, a high achiever," says Mrs Gallie-Hall. "But she quickly turned into an unhappy, under-confident, dissatisfied young woman. Some of it was because she was a teenager but she was bullied by a group of girls - physically attacked in and out of school - and in the end decided that if you can't beat them you join them."

Celie transferred secondary schools, but things didn't improve. Her parents felt that staff didn't listen or understand her vulnerability and she continued to suffer until she was permanently excluded. When she returned to Little London she was quieter, and less confident. But she worked away as a classroom assistant and gradually her confidence and smiles returned. "She felt it was a safe place to come where people liked her," says her mother. "She began to relax for the first time since starting secondary school".

Tragically, Celie died of meningitis two weeks short of her 15th birthday. By then she had a place in college to take maths and English GCSE and was doing a course in health and beauty. After her death her college tutor wrote that she had a "caring, empathic nature which was well developed for a girl of her age."

Mrs Gallie-Hall believes Little London's intervention was crucial. "Children who are excluded, particularly if their parents are working, often end up on the streets with other excluded children," she says. "What benefit is there in that? Back at Little London she began to remember what it was like not to be so unhappy. If she'd died when she was really unhappy I don't know what my husband and I would be feeling now."