Documentary shows ‘radical’ way of helping children with behavioural difficulties

C5's Too Tough To Teach airs tonight and takes you inside a specialist school without punishments, rewards or physical restraint

Claire Lillis is the head teacher at Ian Mikardo's School. Photo: Channel 5

A school trip has ended with Year 8 boys chasing each other down the street. They are swearing at and threatening each other, and the day ends when one boy puts another in a head lock while their teacher shouts about calling the police.

The next time we see these boys, who have all been excluded from their previous schools and have statements of special educational need, they are in a Design Technology class where one is pointing a power drill at the other.

These scenes, featured in the Channel 5 documentary ‘Too Tough to Teach?’, which airs tonight, don’t end with any punishment, nor physical restraint. As the head teacher of Ian Mikardo’s school, Claire Lillis, says: “We want the boys to learn self-restraint”.

Episode One follows two young boys during their time at Ian Mikardo’s, which – it’s safe to say – is a very unique learning environment.

A leading social worker

“It’s a specialist school,” Lillis explains, “a school for boys aged 10-16 who have got a statement of special educational need. The main special educational need diagnosed is social and emotional behavioural difficulties.”

Lillis has been the head of the Tower Hamlets school since 2002 when it was in special measures. Having previously been a teacher and deputy governor of the country’s first child prison, she says the role allowed her to do something radical.

“The first thing I did was appoint a social worker as my deputy,” she tells Community Care. The specialist way it handles staffing translates to its methods: “We really look at what’s going on behind the behaviour, we don’t deal with the behaviour in a reward or sanction way, we actually try to understand what the child is communicating to us”.

The success of these methods is well evidenced. Since 2002 Ian Mikardo’s has been awarded three ‘outstanding’ ratings from Ofsted, while 97% of boys who have left in the last seven years have moved on to education, training or employment.

Evident success

Lillis adds: “When I first went to the school the vast majority ended up in custody. In the last seven years now we haven’t had a child that’s left who has gone to prison.”

But she doesn’t want their methods, and success, to be exclusive to Ian Mikardo’s, explaining their methods could be translated to other social care settings, such as young offender institutions and children’s homes. “The approach we take is challenging, for parents, for boys and for staff. But our results are astounding,” Lillis said.

“I think early intervention is crucial, and instead of us being punitive with our disaffected youth we need to invest in their self-esteem, their self-identity,” she added. Her message to social work managers and policy makers: “Be brave, I think there is something that has made both the teaching profession and social workers fearful of getting something wrong and being criticised for that.”

Despite scenes where boys fight, box and threaten each other with workshop tools, there is none of that fear at Ian Mikardo’s.

Channel 5’s Too Tough To Teach? airs at 9pm on Monday 29 September

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