Pupils with social problems find new means of expression through computers

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The Independent Online

Kirsty had not spoken for two years when she joined her new school in Somerset. Staff suspected she may have been abused but it wasn't until one of her teachers, John d'Abbro, began working with her using a computer that she began to make progress.

"I got her to draw the experience of her trauma using a very simple drawing package," says d'Abbro. "After a while she was able to say 'I've been abused' verbally. Because she built a level of trust with me, she came out of herself and I was able to convey to her she could get help. Without that initial spark she may have gone on doing what she was doing, which was hitting people and getting angry."

Although it happened more than 15 years ago, the experience has had a lasting effect on d'Abbro. Now headteacher at the New Rush Hall School in Ilford, Essex, he says it gave him an enduring faith in the power of information and communication technology, or ICT, as a way of helping children open up, especially those who have been through difficult experiences.

New Rush Hall is a specialist school for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. It teaches 60 children aged five to 16 in classes of no more than eight. Pupils are referred by local education authorities, mainly from the school's borough of Redbridge, although children also come from Newham, Havering, Enfield and Essex.

Many pupils have been permanently excluded from their previous schools for disruptive behaviour including violence, bad language and problems controlling their anger. A number have special educational needs including attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, Aspergers and autistic spectrum disorders. More than 60 per cent are entitled to free school meals.

"Children come with all kinds of difficulties but what they have in common is that they are experiencing emotional pain," says d'Abbro. "Many have had really traumatic experiences in their lives. There might have been inappropriate parenting, there may be emotional scars. Or it may have been a mismatch between them and their previous school, which might have been too rigid to meet their needs."

What New Rush Hall aims to do is help the children overcome their behavioural difficulties so that they can begin to learn. As one pupil put it: "They don't see you as really naughty children. They see you as normal children but with problems and they try and help you sort it out." If they progress well, and it is what they want, many return to mainstream education either full- or part-time.

D'Abbro believes ICT is one of the most important tools available for unlocking the talent of the children at the school. As he sees it, children with behavioural issues are trying to communicate their problems to the people they encounter - albeit through sometimes inappropriate methods.

Technology allows them to express some of those issues in a more productive and creative way and in a language the digital generation understands.

He gives the recent example of a boy who was brought into school at break time very upset, after being involved in a fight. Unable to talk about it, the boy was still wound up and furious. But, thinking creatively, a teacher set up a web camera and the boy used two plastic bottles to make a short film simulating the fight. Having got his feelings out, he calmed down considerably.

"What I am contending is we can use ICT as a therapeutic process," says d'Abbro. "If you've got low self-esteem, learning is a real challenge. If you are walking around with a trauma, it's difficult to learn because your pain gets in the way and stops you taking chances and risks, which is what learning is all about.

"That's where I think the C in ICT comes in. Once children start feeling and doing better, their self-esteem is raised and they can start to learn more effectively." A range of projects at New Rush Hall have proved effective at motivating even the most easily bored and distracted pupils. In one project, supported by Apple, the most responsible year 11 pupils - aged 15 and 16 - were allowed to take laptops home in the evenings and at weekends to complete their work. Several not previously known for their love of homework worked for several hours non-stop because they became so absorbed. And although pupils had to be escorted to and from school when they were carrying the laptops for fear of mugging, all the machines came back.

In other work, students have used digital video technology to make short films about things that were important to them. One boy made a video about his dad's motorbike, which helped improve a relationship both had found difficult. Other work has included making plasticine animation, comics, podcasts and photocasts.

It is an approach that appears to work. The school's last Ofsted report praised it as "very effective" and "very successful in improving pupils' behaviour and enhancing their personal development" and paid tribute to d'Abbro and head of school Maureen Smyth for their "passion and commitment".

Jay-Dee, 15, who got in trouble at his last school, says the music software he uses at New Rush Hall has enabled him to build on his love of music. "I use it to make my own hip hop beats," he says. "I'm enjoying it because I'm learning and it's fun as well. I used to come to school a lot but now I come every day because it's easier to learn. It makes it feel like there's something to look forward to. It feels good because now I know that I'm going to get the marks I wanted. I'd like to do electronic engineering but if I don't do that I'd like to be a producer."

His classmate Saranjeet, 15, meanwhile, uses Apple's iMovie to make short films. "It was hard at first and then you get used to it. Now I really enjoy it." D'Abbro, who did not learn to read and write until he was 15, admits that technology alone cannot have this kind of impact.

But he believes ICT has an important role to play in improving attainment for children. The headteacher is about to test this thesis in a pilot project, due to start next month, which will work with 10 special schools nationwide to evaluate whether ICT can have the same positive impact as it has at New Rush Hall.

"ICT is brilliant and sexy but if you don't have the relationship it won't work," he says. "They don't behave because they get an iPod or a laptop. They behave because they are trusted."

Some names in this article have been changed.