Case study fourteen: The Link Centre

Brief Description of The Provision

The Link Centre is part of the Secondary Pupil Support Service (SPSS) in the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB). SPSS currently work in 18 post primary schools and offer short term alternative placements for one to two academic terms..

Each week staff work with one group of KS3 and one group of KS4 pupils who are on part-time alternative placements at the centre.   To allow for intensive individualised support interventions staff normally work with groups of 5 or 6 pupils at a time. KS3 pupils attend the Link Centre on Monday and Tuesday and return to their own schools for the remainder of the week, hopefully transferring back the skills learned at the Link Centre. KS4 pupils attend the Link Centre on Thursday and Friday and their own schools on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, though quite often a work experience placement will be incorporated into the support programme on Wednesdays. The centre caters for three KS3 groups each academic year (one per term) and two groups of KS4 as there is less demand for places.

In addition on Wednesdays and at other selected times each week the centre offers tailored Relaxation Therapy programmes to 5-8 pupils and one to one or small group curriculum support in English and Mathematics. These pupils are normally referred by Outreach staff or this support may be part of an Exit Package for a pupil returning to school full-time following a Link Centre placement. This support is normally provided by specially qualified Support Assistants as the teaching staff and youth workers are in schools providing individual or group support.

Content and Delivery

The young people arrive by prepaid taxi. The school day runs from 9:00am – 2:45pm. In the morning pupils have the opportunity to socialise in the kitchen area, whilst uniform and equipment are checked. Pupils wear their school uniforms, as reintegration is a key aim of the programme. Pupils are expected to bring a school bag containing their equipment for the day. They will be set, and expected to complete, homework. Some homework may be set by their mainstream school to ensure they keep pace with their peers.

A breakfast club every morning encourages young people to make healthy choices, and they are awarded points for doing so. After breakfast the young people have 15 minutes of circuit training before they go into their concentration/life/social skills session. Water and fruit are provided at break and a hot lunch is provided every day, or students can bring a packed lunch.

Pupils are offered a “broad, balanced, coherent and relevant curriculum” (handbook). Communication, cross curricular skills, thinking skills and personal capabilities, developing self esteem and emotional resilience are fundamental to the Link Centre curriculum. Learning areas include: Art, English with Media, Personal Development, Home Economics, Information Communication Technology, Mathematics and Numeracy, Modern Language, Local and Global Citizenship, Employability, Environment and Society, Physical Education, Life and Social Skills, Literacy skills, Activity Time, Relaxation and Complementary Therapies, End of Day Review. Activity time is supervised time for students to choose an activity from the following list: Football; Basketball; Dance Mat; Board Games; Chess; Pictionary; Table Tennis; Badminton: Electronic brain games. Students select one of these in the morning. If students manage to get 60 or more points for the day, they are allowed 20-25 minutes of their chosen activity at the end of the day. Those who do not get enough points complete a piece of work instead.

Students are provided with regular sessions with an educational psychologist where they can explore important issues in their lives. There are also home link sessions where parents/carers are invited to join students on two or three occasions to work on a variety of tasks. There is a certificate to celebrate excellent reading, on which the young people write which books they have read.

There is a morning circle time. In the session we observed the young people talked about local and global difficulties that people face. All of the young people put a problem they are currently dealing with in the middle of the room, and these were discussed in turn.

The young people still access a MFL, Spanish:

The mainstream school practice of substantially reducing the Modern Languages timetable allocation for students deemed to be of lower academic abilities does little to help their expectations and prospect of success. By contrast, we continue to retain Spanish on the timetable with excellent results” (The Link Centre Modern Foreign Language Policy).

Each PSHE session is different, and external speakers and providers often come in.

The session observed was led by Love for Life, they offered discussion about sex and relationships. The young people engaged well. The cooking session began with a related starter task. The students were thoroughly engaged.

( from researcher field notes)

Throughout the day staff do regular check-ins with the young people. At the end of every day staff check in with the young people to find out how their day has gone and to get them to talk about one positive thing from the day. The young people have goals, and these are always under review; have these goals been met, is this the right goal?

A member of staff runs relaxation sessions in a dedicated relaxation room (see Facilities section).

There is a summer link programme during the first two weeks of the summer holiday where sessions are offered to young people who have accessed Link Centre support during the academic year.

All staff teach their specialism at The Link Centre. The rest of their timetable is spent doing outreach behavioural work with young people in mainstream schools. When Link Centre staff are in mainstream schools they either work with groups of students or do half an hour one-to-one sessions with a cohort of young people (a different cohort to the young people who attend the centre in person), discussing problems that have arisen during the week and suggesting techniques to support their difficulties.

While SPSS is not resourced to provide support to Grammar Schools they can be commissioned directly to provide support to a pupil in crisis or to advise staff on appropriate interventions.

 Identifying Features of Quality


The Link Centre have a strong caring ethos.

Statement of ethos:

“reflecting our commitment to CRED (Community Relations, Equality and Diversity), SPSS provides a safe, caring, purposeful and culturally integrated environment in which young people and their parents and families feel valued and respected as individuals. The Link Centre community is the ideal forum for improving relations, welcoming difference and allowing young people from across the city of Belfast to engage positively with each other. SPSS members of staff inspire young people by being positive role models and by promoting holistic development through relevant learning opportunities matched to individual needs. High expectations and optimistic attitudes encourage our young people to experience success, acquire transferable social skills and form meaningful relationships to help them to meet the responsibilities and challenges of everyday life”.

Mission Statement:

“The Secondary Pupil Support Service, in partnership with the school, the home and other agencies, works to enable children who have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties to improve their life chances and enhance their educational outcomes by providing high quality outreach interventions in schools and part time additional support programme at the Link Centre”. (provision handbook).

Target Group

The Link provision is aimed at young people on the cusp of leaving mainstream school. Staff work with young people who are not getting the most out of their mainstream placement, and who often have social, emotional and/or behaviour difficulties. There is high demand for the service but The Link Centre doesn’t have the scope and resources to meet all of the demand, including demand from grammar schools.


SPSS staff is made up of teachers who specialise in working with pupils who are experiencing social, emotional and/or behavioural difficulties.

SPSS is managed by a Head of Service with a leadership team consisting of a Senior Teacher and two teachers with respective coordination responsibility for Outreach and the Link Centre. There are 4 other teachers, four behaviour support assistants, one of whom is full time. The Link Centre has a youth worker and an assistant youth worker along with two part time administrative staff. Teaching staff are qualified secondary teachers, normally with a minimum of 5 years experience who teach their curriculum specialism. Staff are provided with training before they do outreach work with young people, and this work is monitored by a senior member of staff at The Link Centre..

There was a mix of male and female staff in the provision, and staff were of mixed ages. Lance (senior member of staff) is very comfortable and natural with the young people. Other staff, and people working in this area, spoke very highly of him. Erica is the English teacher. She has 7 years teaching experience. A psychology student volunteers one day a week.

From researcher notes

Staff have regular training and professional development. The Link Centre also offers training in mainstream schools as a way of building capacity.

Staff are employed and paid by The Education and Library Board.


Staff have a catch-up meeting at the end of every day. Staff consider each of the young people in turn and discuss what kind of a day they had.

There is a staff communication book. Everything is written down; good and bad incidents and notes from the end of day meeting.

Safety and Safeguarding

Staff have specialist suicide training.

Rules and Discipline

Placement at The Links is voluntary. The young people sign a code of conduct when they arrive. Staff bring this out on occasions when the young people do not adhere to the rules to remind them of the agreement. The rules are to ensure that everyone feels safe, happy and able to learn:

Treatment Rule: respecting others and their property; good manners.
Learning Rule: Work to the best of your ability, allow others to work.
Communication Rule: One person speaks and others listen, put your hand up to speak
Safety Rule: Stay at the centre all day, act responsibly and safely when using equipment (provision handbook).

Students are not permitted to smoke and cannot leave the site at lunch time. Phones are handed in, but are allowed at lunch.

Monitoring of progress

Progress is monitored regularly. Full weekly reports go to the child and parents/guardians by the end of the week, and there is space for them to comment on it.

The young people are awarded points for different things. The young people receive points at the end of every session. The number of points they get varies depending on how well they have met their target and how they have behaved. As noted earlier, if the young people get over 60 points in a day they have a treat; they get to do an activity that they like doing (the young people decide what they might do at the beginning of the day).

The points system gives students an opportunity to acquire 10 points per session. Five can be awarded for effort and five can be awarded for behaviour. The young people can also gain 5 points for break time, for their uniform, and a bonus five points are available every day too.   The total number of points that can be acquired in a day is 100.

An excellent student (5 points):

  • Arrives on time to class
  • Settles down to work immediately
  • Treats all others with respect
  • Allows all others to work without disturbance
  • Does their very best to complete the work set

Penalty Points – A minimum loss of five points for:

  • Use of unacceptable or offensive language including racist, sexist and sectarian comments towards another person
  • Use of rude or offensive gestures
  • Leaving without permission
  • Fighting with others or damage to property (provision handbook).


The group seen during the research visit consisted of two girls and two boys. (One other girl was absent as she was attending school for GCSE assessment work)


A request for a place at the Link Centre may only be made by an Education Psychologist , usually in consultation with key partners. The referral form seeks the following information on young people, which is provided by the school and by an Education Psychologist:

  • Personal and contact information
  • Involvement with other agencies
  • School Attendance
  • A risk assessment form
  • Views of the parent/carer towards a Link Centre placement
  • Reason for school referral
  • Strategies the school has tried
  • Strengths of the current placement
  • History of the school placement
  • Suggested targets for Link Centre placement
  • Suggested aims for psychological input

A referral must be accompanied by: A current education plan for the pupil, a Personal Education Plan (for LAC pupils), a Risk Assessment form and a completed attendance report.

A decision about whether a place should be offered rests with the Link Centre Admission and Re-integration Panel which meets five times per year. The panel consists of the head of the Link Centre, a senior educational psychologist and a senior education welfare officer. The panel will usually make a recommendation to: offer the student a place, refuse the student a place, or defer the referral pending further information. If the centre is oversubscribed, to offer interim support until a place becomes available.

Placement is subject to several criteria. Both the pupil and parents must agree to the placement, and the pupil must attend their mainstream school for the remainder of the week.   The placement is part time and therefore not suitable for those who require a full time support. Pupils must have accessed a minimum of six outreach sessions prior to a placement so that there is “an effective relationship between the SPSS teacher and pupil” (provision handbook). Placements must also take account of the gender, religious balance, age and particular pupil-pupil relationships to ensure the optimum learning environment.

The decision of the panel is communicated as soon as possible. If a young person is offered a place they are invited to tour the provision and meet staff. During this initial meeting the philosophy and expectations of the centre are discussed, and admissions agreements explained to parents/carers. Questions and concerns will be addressed during this first meeting. If, during the visit, all parties are in agreement about the place then the necessary arrangement will be made. Otherwise, the family are given chance to go away and discuss and decide on the placement. A proforma is used in this initial meeting to collect information on: school, parent and pupil views; the academic ability and career aspirations of the pupil; their behaviour at home and whether or not the young person smokes; any special circumstances for the centre to be aware of.

Once agreed the following arrangements need to be made:

  • signing the Link Centre-Home Link agreement
  • placement cost letter sent to the mainstream school
  • agreeing a key Educational Psychologist to work with the pupil
  • identifying the appropriate programme and supports
  • discussing the referral with the centre staff
  • agreeing a start date and a review date
  • organising transport and lunch arrangements
  • setting up appropriate files

The Link Centre staff create a profile of the pupils, which includes academic baseline information such as their reading, spelling, comprehension, numeracy and IQ scores, information on their attendance and any suspensions, presenting problems, strengths and areas to be targeted. All of this information, together with standard enrolment data is collated in pupil profile folders, for all of the Link Centre staff to access.

A weekly report is sent to the school and parent/carer. This details young people’s effort and behaviour in each of the sessions that week and how many effort and behaviour points they have received (for more discussion of points see ‘Monitoring Progress’ section). Weekly reports for the school focus on the positive, and only mention major issues. Staff don’t want schools to focus on minor negatives and ‘nit-pick’ with the young people. During the placement staff fill in a form about effective and ineffective strategies for working with the young person, which are then given to the school.

After 8 weeks the staff have a formal catch up meeting with each young person and report back to the school on what they have seen and what the young person needs ongoing support with. They can of course have an emergency catch-up at any point if there is cause for concern.

Placements at the Link Centre are short term so there is a strong emphasis on successful reintegration. There are exit packages for the young people, and the exit is gradual. Link Centre staff go and visit the young people at school, and the young people might still attend the centre, for example one young person comes back for one hour a week to work on phonics. At the end of the placement the parent and school complete a questionnaire (see ‘Evaluation’ section).

Outreach work:

Young people in mainstream schools accessing the Link Centre outreach work can only be referred for the part-time alternative provision at the centre after a minimum of 6 sessions in school.

Relationships with Students

Lance (senior member of staff) sees his most important job as building a relationship with the young person from the second they come in. His aim is to create a calm, peaceful and productive environment as it is crucial that the young people feel safe and secure.

In the sessions observed, young people were engaged, listening and contributing.

In MFL the students were taught by a very accommodating teacher. She worked with the young people to decide which task they would like to do. The young people are new to the subject so are finding it difficult. She wants to make it as enjoyable as possible so that the young people remember it as a positive learning experience. She used lots of positive reinforcement.

From researcher notes

When the young people leave they have A Celebration of Achievement event attended by all the key partners where a suite of certificates is presented along with a specially prepared laminated card with a photo of the group on the front and positive comments from everyone inside. There is a praise/positive memory box for each student. Staff can post things into these, e.g. comments on positive memories. Pupils check these every day.

Relationships between Students

Placements take account of the gender, religious balance, age and particular pupil-pupil relationships in the centre to ensure the optimum learning environment. Most of the students go to single-sex schools, but the Link Centre is co-educational and cross community.

Relationship with parents

Parents are given a range of information when their child starts at the Link Centre, and are requested to provide basic enrolment nformation.

  • A form to sign to accept the placement and their child’s attendance at the Link Centre
  • An opportunity to sign to say their child can be photographed and included in videos
  • An introduction to the relaxation programme and a chance to say whether or not their child can be involved in this
  • Medical information
  • A parent and student agreement form
  • An acceptable use of ICT form

Information required at the start of placement

The Link Centre welcome involvement from parents/carers. They are expected to:

  • ensure their child attends as agreed and phoning when they are absent
  • Praise and reward the child each day when he/she has reached their target
  • sign the weekly report sheet
  • keep the centre informed of changes to contact details
  • help their child with reading and homework
  • encourage safe behaviour on the journey to and from the centre.

The Link Centre invite parents/carers to join them for the first cookery session. These sessions are called home-link sessions. At the time of our visit in 2014, young people were due to have a printing workshop where the parent/carer and pupil will work alongside each other to make a special print of a family memento, such as a photograph or artefact. Another future event was to involve a bus tour around Belfast.

The parent’s/carer’s introduction to the centre also includes some tips for positive parenting and caring. Staff stress the importance of being a good role model and of: giving praise about school work and behaviour, providing small rewards for effort; offering support and appreciating small positive changes in behaviour and school work. Staff emphasise that all children make mistakes and that these are valuable ways of learning. They stress that it is important to be honest, fair and consistent, and not to criticise or make threats.

‘How can you help your child ‘survive’ in school?’

  • Make sure your child is early for school each day
  • Do a uniform check
  • Ask your child what is required for each class each day
  • Ask your child about homework and when it needs to be handed in
  • Ask your child about the school rules and why these exist
  • Encourage your child to behave well and treat others with respect
  • Remind your child to listen carefully and follow instructions
  • Encourage them to have good behaviour at break and lunch time and between classes
  • Encourage them to be pleasant and to get on with others.

Parental checklist

Staff complete a pre and post placement homelink evaluation form with parents/carers (see ‘Evaluations’ section).

Resources and Networks :

The Link Centre has a partnership with Carillion Energy and has partnerships with engineering companies and organisations. These are useful for organising work experience placements.

Lance (senior member of staff) has access to a wider network of people working in AEP and mainstream education.

Relationships with other Services and Agencies

Educational psychologists come in every week.


The Link Centre has a relaxation room. This includes a reclining chair and facilities to play relaxing music.


The Link Centre gets £400,000 per academic year from BELB which is earmarked from the Department of Education. They also receive an additional £200,000 per academic year from BELB. Schools pay around £500 per child per Link Centre place to cover transport costs etc. but there is no charge for the Outreach support.

Well-managed, led and accountable

The following policies are available to parents on request: administration of medication; anti-bullying; critical incident policy; curriculum; drug education; health and safety and first aid; health and well-being; medical emergency procedures; pastoral care; positive behaviour management including safe handling; safeguarding code of conduct; student acceptable use of the internet policy and agreement; sun protection.

Evaluation and Quality Assurance

A pre and post placement questionnaire is completed by parents/guardians and attempts to ascertain:

  • the activities that the family do together
  • whether the child helps in the home
  • what life is like for their child (rating 1-10)
  • how parents would rate their relationships with their child (1-10)
  • who their child confides in
  • how boundaries are put in place in the home, and child’s responses to this
  • any specific issues of conflict, and how conflict is resolved
  • what parents would like from The Link Centre
  • what their child has done that they are most proud of

The school also completes a questionnaire, which seeks their views on the referral process, the reporting systems, the mid-point review, the quality of the placement, the impact on the young person and how the programme could be improved. The parent and pupil complete separate evaluation questionnaires which cover similar areas.

All the key partners also complete the Strengths and Difficulties questionnaire[1] which is then analysed by support staff. The results are used to inform stakeholders of pupils’ progress in the Head of Service Annual report

The Link Centre have an evaluation form for anyone who visits the centre, which they use to ascertain their views on whether the visit was worthwhile and whether or not the staff were helpful and informative.

Transformation (Choice and autonomy)

There are healthy eating posters up on the walls. In the cookery session we observed the young people were making quite an unhealthy dish, and the young people were told that things like this should only be eaten on a special occasion. Young people are encouraged to make healthy choices at breakfast and mid-morning break where “there will be opportunities to sample fresh fruit and allow pupils to experiment with new tastes and foods. Chilled water is provided for pupils throughout the day” (provision handbook)..

The team engage in seminars and events around relevant topics. The researcher was provided with a power point presentation from an outreach best practice seminar the team had attended, and was able to attend Lance’s talk on AP at The Prince’s Trust Conference in Belfast.




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