Primary concerns

Against a background of rising primary school exclusions, work
to help children improve their behaviour is more important than
ever. Frances Rickford reports.

School exclusions among primary aged children are creeping up,
and last year represented 16 per cent of all permanent exclusions.
Just as shockingly, less than a third of excluded primary aged
children are receiving full-time education anywhere else. But the
consequences for the children involved are not confined to missing
school in the short term. Most people recognise that “poor
behaviour” in young children is usually the result of emotional
difficulties which will probably worsen if a child is rejected by
the education system. The government recognises that it is worth
investing in effective early interventions to keep children out of
trouble, and primary schools are being urged to find better ways to
help children integrate.

Indeed there is already a bewildering range of services to
support children’s behaviour.1 “Whole school”
approaches recognise that behaviour issues are partly a function of
more general relationships in the school. So they use techniques
such as circle time – when games and exercises are used to foster
trusting and caring feelings between the children in a class, or
within the staff group – and lunchtime policies which introduce
organised activities during playtime.

Other interventions targeted on individual children range from
local initiatives run from within the voluntary sector such as
Chance UK (see below), through local education authorities’
own behaviour support services, to national initiatives such as the
Behaviour and Education Support Teams (Bests) which are currently
being piloted in 33 local authorities across the UK. Bests are
multi-agency teams working with selected clusters of schools to
support teachers and to provide supportive services to pupils with
emotional and behaviour difficulties.

So how effective are these interventions? The evidence is mixed.
Circle time was found by one evaluation to be beneficial for all
pupils, but especially for those with socialisation problems. A
Cambridge university study has revealed that schools with nurture
groups have significantly higher gains for pupils with behavioural
and emotional difficulties, both in the nurture group and in the
mainstream class than schools without. Children in the nurture
group also showed “impressive rates of improvement” in the nurture
group and in their mainstream class.

Interventions targeted on individuals are more likely to work in
schools with a supportive ethos. A recent study from Kings College
London into an initiative very similar to Best reports, “Schools
were positioned on a continuum: at one end, the
‘excluding’ school isolated the ‘difficult’
child and treated the child and family as the problem. At the other
end, the school worked hard to promote a positive environment,
anchoring the whole process of promoting mental, emotional and
social health in their work and ethos.”2

Local education authorities have been providing in-house
services to support pupil behaviour in schools for decades,
although they vary widely. Special educational needs teachers,
education psychology services and behaviour support teams based in
pupil referral units are among the staples, and these too are now
in the spotlight.

Lilian Vickery is head of the Minerva Centre, one of three pupil
referral units for primary school children in Birmingham. The nine
staff spend about half their time supporting pupils attending the
centre, and the other half helping the 110 primary schools in its
catchment area to prevent exclusions.

“We’re trying to shift the balance away from dealing with
individual referrals towards working with the school, setting up
programmes to empower them to anticipate problems and stop them
developing.” The unit has selected the 16 schools that refer the
most pupils for this approach which, says Vickery, is working

The centre works mostly with boys, a growing number of whom have
a diagnosis either of attention deficit disorder or autistic
spectrum disorders. Where a child is at serious risk of being
excluded they can be brought to the centre for one session a week
for one small group session per week teaching them classroom
skills. The six-week course includes classes on rules and why they
are needed, anger management and how to be a good friend. Vickery
says two or three sessions a week would be more effective, but the
resources are not available. There are currently 11 of these
“shared” children plus 11 permanently excluded children at the

Vickery claims the evidence of the centre’s success is in
the exclusion statistics, and the feedback from schools. “I would
like it if we were able to do more preventive work using shared
programmes because we know they work. The permanently excluded
children we get are the ones we’ve never heard of

, DfES and Coram Family, 2002

2 Sheila Macrae and Meg
Maguire, Starting Young: Challenging Exclusion in the Primary
, Economic and Social Research Council,

For more information about nurture groups see

Early interventions

Nurture groups

The rationale of nurture groups is that adequate early nurturing
is a prerequisite for satisfactory emotional, social and cognitive
development, and that without it children cannot respond to school
demands. The group aims to give children the chance to experience
the early care they have missed.

Classes of 10 to 12 children in a mainstream primary school have
their own teacher and teaching assistant and their own classroom
containing soft furniture and cooking facilities. The children also
remain part of their mainstream class and are collected from it
each day after registration. Relationships are warm and affirming
with an emphasis on talking and listening, including about feelings
and behaviour. Children have breakfast together in the group. Staff
model considerate behaviour towards each other, and rules are
discussed with children. Transgressors are “made aware of the
consequences of behaviour choices” rather than punished.

Chance UK

Started by a Hackney policeman in 1996, Chance UK now works in
three London boroughs training and supervising volunteer adult
mentors to give one-to-one support to primary school children with
significant behaviour difficulties. Children and their families are
visited and assessed by Chance, then introduced to their mentor.
Mentors spend a few hours a week with the child for a year, outside
school hours, often in activities chosen by the child. They set
goals, both relating to their behaviour at school and their chosen
activity, such as swimming or skating.

Four out of five referred children are boys and after a big
campaign last year, 30 per cent of Chance’s mentors are now
men. Director Gracia McGrath explains: “Most of our boys have no
positive male role model, and if you don’t know any men who
haven’t gone to prison, or sold drugs it really does make a

Chance is now recruiting mentors for referred children’s
parents too – normally older, experienced parents. McGrath reports:
“A lot of the parents have said ‘what about a mentor for
me?’ It’s about the parent saying what they want to
change and what they feel is wrong.”

National Pyramid Trust

Aimed at children who find it difficult to make friends or gain
acceptance within their peer group and based on the belief that
once they are integrated they will be better able to learn.
Children are invited to join an after-school club, run by a
professional Pyramid Club co-ordinator supported by trained
volunteers. The ethos of the club is that it is a special, select
and desirable place to be, and activities are designed to raise
self-esteem and develop interaction and loyalty between the

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