Kate Middleton set to visit city’s vulnerable kids

S1 pupils TJ, Bradie Palmer and Liam show off their work. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
S1 pupils TJ, Bradie Palmer and Liam show off their work. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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WITH sofas, cushions and even an area where pupils can grab a bite to eat before lessons begin, this is far from your average classroom.

But teachers and specialists behind a pioneering new art therapy studio at Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) believe the workshop is set to be every bit as important to pupils’ success – and there’s the prospect of a grand opening by the Duchess of Cambridge to spur them on.

The first Scottish branch of UK children’s charity The Art Room, WHEC’s studio, which has just launched, aims to restore vulnerable children’s inner calm and wellbeing as they deal with issues such as family break-up and debt.

Core to the centre’s activity will be specialist-led sessions aimed at boosting creativity and self-esteem by encouraging youngsters to transform everyday objects into works of art.

Although excited that Kate Middleton, the charity’s patron, is set to give the enterprise her royal seal of approval later this year, staff stress their focus will be firmly on helping children.

WHEC headteacher Sheila Paton said the centre would become a focal point for the entire community in Wester Hailes and its surrounding neighbourhoods before staff reach out to needy youngsters across the city.

She said: “This is proper therapy that will actually address and help these young people through the issues they have – these are kids who may have blended families, families with financial issues, nobody in employment at home.

“They might well be looked after and accommodated children, which means that there’s a social worker assigned to the family. It’s the whole gamut of young people that we might have in a centre like this. And quite often, these children are at risk of exclusion.”

WHEC pupils from S1 who took part in Art Room taster sessions said they had already begun to make a difference.

Bradie Palmer, 13, said: “It’s good doing more art – it helps me with my concentration. That’s something I find quite tough in class. You’re working on your concentration skills. And I feel relaxed when I go back to class.”

TJ Mill, 12, said: “I feel a bit more relaxed. I like making stuff and having something to eat before I do it. I feel a bit better when I return to class.”

Liam Hunter, 12, admitted to not having much interest in many of his regular lessons, but added: “I like getting out of class – it’s fun here. There’s not an actual teacher and there are more things to do.”

Featuring a range of bought and donated tools, furniture and books, WHEC’s studio marks the first foray into Scotland by The Art Room.

Formed in 2002, the charity has helped 10,000 children at its seven UK centres in Oxford and London, and is currently opening a further two studios, including its new workshop in the Capital.

Although the art sessions involve removing vulnerable children from classes where they are often struggling to cope, the goal is to help them settle back into mainstream teaching as quickly as possible.

Charity leaders said they were delighted to launch their first Scottish base at WHEC, adding that they were attracted by the strength of support from staff and the community.

Maxine Sloss, trustee and driving force behind the Edinburgh initiative, said: “This project is brilliant for us because it’s going to be a real community centre and we can feed in all of the primary schools from around the area.

“Edinburgh has really got into this, which is really heart-warming. People have given their kitchen tables and chairs, and have provided knitted blankets – it’s been amazing.”

The WHEC Art Room is one of a growing number of school-based projects across the Capital offering teachers alternatives to the conventional classroom as a setting for working with children.

A number of city schools now operate “nurture centres” – kitted out with snack tables, cushions and toys – for pupils experiencing issues with their emotional and mental wellbeing.

And Craigroyston High has become one of the first in Scotland to scrap exclusions, with unruly youngsters kept in school but referred to a dedicated base for specialist support.

WHEC teachers said helping vulnerable children within the security of the school environment would be crucial to their long-term outcomes.

“There’s a challenge for these kids in being in a large class, moving around and dealing with the different subject areas in a secondary context,” said Ms Paton.

“It’s very personal – the Art Room specialists who work with these children know the particular issues of the young people they are working with.

“All the evidence and evaluation is that there have been successful outcomes for young people who have participated in these programmes, which means that they stay in mainstream education and go on to positive destinations.”

Fellow WHEC teachers said there had already been a clear change in the attitude and demeanour of pupils they are trying to help.

Deputy head Janet Walker said: “There are certainly members of staff in the school who have noticed a difference – even if it’s just them being a bit calmer and smilier.

“And it’s also been noticed that they are a bit more focussed and a bit more settled.”