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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Model centre for disruptive pupils
Zacchaeus Centre
Moyra Healy says some pupils have never been praised before
The Conservative leader, William Hague, is proposing a network of "progress centres" for excluded pupils. These would build on the "pioneering work" of the Zacchaeus Centre in Birmingham, he said. BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan reports on how it operates.

Punching pillows might not be in the national curriculum, but it is helping to keep young people in the classroom and off the streets.

A project in inner-city Birmingham to help secondary school pupils at risk of exclusion is using "anger management" as part of its efforts to teach young people to take control of their behaviour.

The four-week course at the Zacchaeus Centre, which is attended by 10 pupils aged 11 to 14, provides an intensive programme designed to tackle persistent anti-social behaviour.

Angry masks
Angry masks: pupils are taught how to control their temper
The anger management course is taught by a psychotherapist, who encourages the pupils to release their aggression through role-play and exercises such as punching pillows.

There are also "angry books" in which the pupils write their most aggressive and negative thoughts about themselves and their classmates - and without anyone else reading the contents, the pupils rip up the books.

If this sounds like an overdose of therapy-speak, the setting could not be less pretentious - a basement classroom beside a dual-carriageway in the centre of Birmingham.

And the problems facing the pupils are as unromantic as the setting - constant misbehaviour, the likelihood of permanent expulsion and leaving school without qualifications.

If the problems of educational failure are predictable - two-thirds of young offenders have been excluded from school or are persistent truants - the answers to the problems are more elusive.

But it seems as though the approach adopted by the Zacchaeus Centre is working. A research study - which has yet to be published - shows a high success rate, with 79% of pupils who have attended the centre avoiding any subsequent exclusions. In the year after attending a course, 87% of pupils are not excluded.

The Department for Education has also highlighted the work of the Zacchaeus Centre as an example of good practice in reducing the numbers of pupils excluded from school.

Apart from teaching pupils to control their anger, the centre has a strong emphasis on raising the self-esteem of the pupils.

They are drawn from Roman Catholic secondary schools in Birmingham and have to work for a month within a behaviour code that relentlessly accentuates the positive.

At the top of the list of rules is a ban on "put-downs", with staff and pupils encouraged to keep praising each others' efforts, in an attempt to re-invent less negative patterns of behaviour.

"Many of these pupils have never been praised before - and many of them think that no one will like them if they stop behaving badly," says the headteacher, Moyra Healy.

Code of conduct
Pupils have to keep to a strict set of rules during their month at the centre
"They have a lack of self-worth that is reinforced by outside factors - such as peer pressure, an emphasis on materialism and living in a society where it's better knocking something than praising."

The pupils who attend the centre face a daily timetable that constantly balances doses of praise with constraints on behaviour - with each day finishing with each pupils' behaviour being discussed in front of the class.

According to one of the youngsters at the centre, the mix of compassion and control seems to work. One 13-year-old who excluded from his school twice, said he wanted to make a fresh start.

"I used to lose my temper and get in trouble - back-chatting and fighting.

"Now I'm getting back to learning. I want to get a career, I don't want to end up being chucked out and ending up without a job."

Rose Mason, deputy headteacher at St John Wall, one of the schools which sends pupils to the Zacchaeus Centre, says that pupils do return "feeling better about themselves".

"It gives them a chance to change and the space to take stock. They come back full of energy, bringing us the certificates that they've earned."

Moyra Healy likens the impact of the centre to an "antibiotic", allowing pupils to return to their own schools in a frame of mind that allows them to resist the temptation to misbehave.

All this is achieved in an atmosphere that is designed to break a cycle of failure and to make the youngsters seem valued.

"You don't improve a school by pulling it up by the hair - you build it up by giving support to those in most need," she said.

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See also:

06 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Hague promise to tackle 'young thugs'
27 Apr 00 | Unions 2000
More 'sin bins' for unruly pupils
30 May 00 | Unions 2000
Knife pupils stay in school
01 Jun 00 | Unions 2000
Action on exclusion of violent pupils
04 Mar 99 | Education
School that stopped exclusions
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