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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 April 2006, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Second chance for excluded girls
Thelma Etim
BBC News, Hampshire

Serendipity Centre
Girls' educational and emotional needs will be addressed
A teacher has remortgaged her home to open a city's first school for girls excluded from mainstream education.

Sue Tinson raised 500,000 to set up Southampton's Serendipity Centre - thought to be the first to try to develop "holistic" teaching methods.

The school aims to give disaffected pupils a second chance, hence its name, says its founder and head teacher.

With the blessing of her husband Ian,

the tenacious 39-year-old resigned from her job at the city's pupil referral unit to realise her dream of trying to reduce the number of girls who "drop out" of the education system.

Girls referred to the school by local education authorities after all other alternatives have been exhausted will have acute emotional needs, explained Mrs Tinson.

The power that we (teachers) have over youngsters is absolutely incredible
Serendipity's founder Sue Tinson

Mrs Tinson, who wanted to open a school specially designed in size, environment and staff-pupil ratio to address the girls' needs, said: "The children when they do arrive will have an awful lot of baggage.

"Their difficulties - linked to their temporary or permanent exclusion - could include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, self-harming behaviour and imminent motherhood.

"It can be anything from experiencing extreme bullying, having learning difficulties to hearing problems.

"The other end of the spectrum is these children have put themselves or other children at risk through violence, self-harming, physical or mental abuse and sometimes sexually."

Head teacher Sue Tinson
Head teacher Sue Tinson left school with few qualifications

Her growing frustration about the "lack of provision" for the girls she encountered at the pupil referral unit was the catalyst that set her on the road to establishing the centre.

In the academic year of 2004/5, there were 365 temporary exclusions and nine permanent exclusions for girls aged 11-16 in Southampton - 6% of the female secondary school population.

Her endeavours finally came to fruition when Serendipity officially opened on Wednesday.

"The project has completely taken over our lives. My husband and I have both noticeably aged over the past year," she said.

I don't think you know how much power you have got or how much influence you have got until it's too late - they have left and you have no control
Sue Tinson

The mother-of-one, who herself left school with few qualifications returning to education later in adulthood, is well aware of how easy it is for a child to be branded a failure.

"The power that we (teachers) have over youngsters is absolutely incredible," she explained.

"I don't think you know how much power you have got or how much influence you have got until it's too late - they have left and you have no control."

Her thoughts are echoed by an educational study, carried out by the University of Leicester, which found girls comprise just 17% of permanent exclusions nationally.

The research revealed the "invisibility" of girls' difficulties severely affected their ability to get help.

Because the problem is perceived as small compared with boys, resources are targeted at the males, it said.

Mrs Tinson, who has been teaching for 10 years, hopes to address this situation by developing a new teaching model with the University of Southampton's School of Education.

The three-year research project will hopefully be partly funded by a government scheme called the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP).

If their bid is successful, the university will supervise a researcher who will effectively become a member of staff and part of the centre.

Separating the sexes

Dr Melanie Nind, who would be overseeing the research, said: "We see great benefit in supporting the work of Serendipity to be informed by research evidence and to contribute to the knowledge on provision for girls who are excluded from school."

At the end of the three-year KTP, there would be the potential for the findings to be fed back into mainstream education.

However, Dr Ludwig Lowenstein, who ran the Allington Manor residential school for excluded boy and girls in Eastleigh for 20 years, has his reservations about separating the sexes.

He said: "I prefer the mixture of the sexes because I think it is a more normal and natural environment.

"The children learn how to interact not just with their own sex but with the opposite sex."

But Mrs Tinson's aim was always to turn the lives around of young girls: "I set up Serendipity because I wanted to try to make a difference to some girls' lives."

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