I don’t work in a mainstream school and I don’t teach mainstream pupils. I teach pupils for whom the latest coded term is ‘vulnerable and complex’.
Many of those that I work with have been excluded from mainstream provision because of the impact their behaviour was having on themselves and others. Academic ability is not usually a particular issue, although many have suffered, academically, of course, simply by dint of the disruptive lives they have led. This is why Pupil Referral Units exist.
Regarding this issue, I recalled an article from The Guardian (27.5.13).The head teacher of a primary school in a deprived area was arguing, essentially, that she must manage highly disruptive pupils in her mainstream school because there is nobody else to help them. She (correctly) took this opportunity to take a huge swipe at the myriad of ‘services’ who, she argues, are letting these children down so badly,
“My frustration is with the amount of time it takes for referrals to health professionals to go through, whether it’s mental health services or paediatricians, and the apparent lack of interest from social services.
“I‘ve seen many children failed by this system, which is now dysfunctional. They are too traumatised for support; they are not traumatised enough for support. They are “looked after” by family, so aren’t eligible for support.”
Meanwhile, in her school the pupils that she refers to wreak absolute havoc on a daily basis:
“I have a reception child, aged four…In school she is unmanageable. She bites, kicks, hits and runs. She has serious attachment and speech and language needs… She will plough through a group of children to get something she wants, unaware that she is hurting them as she does so.”
And, in reference to a year 4 boy:
“…The last time I saw him, he was tearing around the school delivering torrents of abuse. He was not responding to anyone – not even his mother, whom he was subjecting to the same stream of foul language.
“He seemed to be stuck in a tornado of rage and fury that swept him along, trying to destroy everything in his path: pens, pencils, people. I felt helpless…”
The system, in its confused attempts at conformity to protocols, multiple layers of uncooperative departments and layers of uncoordinated procedures remains, by and large, not fit for purpose. Cases such as this will probably be all too familiar to any teacher reading this post. They are by no means isolated or rare occurrences. In mainstream schools, we are, almost certainly, at crisis point with a number of pupils at any one time. These pupils are often in desperate need of intervention, and are absolutely crying out for counselling, respite and/or external support.
Meanwhile, consideration should also be given to the remaining pupils at that school. What happens to the other pupils while pupil X ploughs through groups unaware they are causing physical pain? Or when pupil Y charges along corridors shouting and swearing, or sits in class throwing pens around? Are they sitting quietly at their desks, working away? I very much doubt it. At the very least, they may be distracted by the disruption and have stopped work to stare. They may find their teacher’s attention is gone, or they may even find that their whole class is forced to move somewhere else while the incident is dealt with.
This headteacher’s attitude is admirable, and her concern for these kids above reproach. But – BUT – the fundamental thing that schools exist for is teaching and learning. It is true to say that schools do have an increasingly disproportional pastoral role to play in the lives of young people, which suggests that it is just possible we may be in danger of losing sight of our whole raison d’être.
Last week on Ch4’s school-based, fly-on-the-wall programme ‘Educating Yorkshire’, we were shown a magnified view of two boys with behavioural issues. I won’t go into detail as it has already been widely discussed However, suffice it to say that both boys were certainly taking up a huge amount of educators’ time dealing with issues other than learning and academic study. Again, somewhat similar to the school above, the school was desperately trying to hang on to those kids and avoid going down the exclusion route.
Because while teachers’ precious reserves of time, attention and nervous energy are being depleted dealing with the few ‘naughty kids’, there are numerous kids, even in the toughest, most deprived areas who go to school to work. They simply want to get their heads down and learn. They don’t cause any particular problems, and don’t require much additional attention. Is it fair that the conduct of a few should impact so severely on this modest ambition?
You’ll be familiar with this story, so I will only cite it briefly but that does not diminish either its significance or its import regarding education practices today: In Saltley School, Birmingham recently, there was uproar over an incident where a boy wielded a knife and threatened his fellow pupils. The exact details of what happened are unknown and, actually, are not at issue here. What is known is this: The head won’t permanently exclude the boy and the governors have declared he should return to lessons.
The report states that, Balwant Bains, Headteacher, ‘..confirmed that there had been an incident at the school which he judged to be very serious, but said that the matter had been dealt with through due process. “The needs of all pupils are being met,” he said.’ (Guardian 24.9.13)
Meanwhile, the teaching staff at the school are refusing to teach the boy and are threatening to walk out on strike over safety concerns, for themselves and their pupils. This will, somewhat inevitably, impact further on the education of the majority of pupils at the school.
Now, I know that schools should, (and do!) try every possible trick and tactic before permanent exclusion and referral to PRUs, but really, there does come a point where enough is enough. There will always be some nuts that you just can’t crack. The kids who no amount of behaviour training will prepare us for. When there is a class of thirty others to consider, in a school of hundreds, or even thousands, at what point do you say, “no more”?
At PRUs, the focus is slightly different. Yes, the onus is still on academic attainment, but within this there is also an expectation that there will be behaviour issues. This does not mean ‘condoning’ poor behaviour, far from it! But groups are smaller and staff are specialised in the ‘drill’ re behaviour, restraint and being ‘on call’.
Unless the child is an extreme case, the plan is usually to get these pupils to a point where they are fit and able to return to mainstream school. Academically, they are expected to achieve as much as they would at mainstream schools. Certainly, It would be counter productive if they were to slip (further?) behind their peers.
With all this in mind, in July I received notification of a national short story writing competition. At first glance the task seemed manageable enough:
‘Write an original story with a twist, or take a well known classic and put a new spin on it. But there’s an added challenge, can you write your story using just 100 words?’
I made the decision that I would enter all of the pupils I taught for English, including some at our Remand Centre on the other side of the city. The task did prove to be somewhat more of a challenge than I had imagined. To get a beginning, middle and end and also the added theme of ‘a twist’ into one hundred words was daunting. The pupils, however, were fantastic. They grasped the idea of ‘a twist’ and came up with lots of original and inventive ideas. They realised the importance of selective and inventive vocabulary, due to the 100-word-limit. I was especially impressed with the surreal imagination and humour of a number of the entries.
Last Monday morning (23rd Sept) I arrived at work to find a letter on my desk informing me that no less than ten – TEN! – of these pupils had been selected to have their work published in a book. Successful stories had been chosen on the basis of: ‘imagination, perception, expression and creative use of language.’ If that were not enough, most impressively for us, I thought, copies of this book will be lodged at the British Library and other selected libraries throughout the UK and Ireland.
Now, I’d be willing to bet that had any one of these ten young people still been on role at their mainstream school, the chances are that they would have been too disengaged, distracted, disenfranchised and too busy disrupting to apply themselves and complete this task successfully.
On Tuesday afternoon I witnessed one of our successful competition entrants swaggering up the corridor boasting to another pupil “I’m a published author, you know!” It did make me wonder if some time in a Pupil Referral Unit might just be the most beneficial route for all concerned.
The structures and solutions are already in place to deal with the kind of not uncommon dilemma facing the Headteacher and staff at Saltley School, Birmingham. Sending a possibly ‘unteachable’ pupil to a well-run, pro-active PRU would be, perhaps, a last-chance-saloon solution for the placement of such problem pupils. However, it could also turn out to be a positive game-changer for this particular boy and one that the many in his situation are -albeit unknowingly – looking for. After all, inclusion for inclusion’s sake seems to work for no-one at all.
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