A friend of mine recently suggested that I write a blog about a typical working day at the Pupil Referral Unit I teach at; I decided to give it a go. At the very least, I thought, it might provide some comfort to my mainstream counterparts – we really do encounter some very extreme behaviour. However, when I sat down to write it, it made me think: I began to think about why we may have these extremes of behaviour, and what might need to change.
I teach English at a centre which forms part of a much larger PRU. Our original cohort was KS3 and 4, although this year we have gradually morphed into what is predominantly a Y6 centre (although we do have a few older children). This is because of the huge ‘bulge’ in the system, caused by the sheer number of Y6 permanent exclusions. Next year we are to revert to being a secondary centre.
Our pupils are all permanently excluded from their previous education provider, and our remit is to provide short-term education while an alternative school is sought. Several pupils have ‘Special Needs Statements’ for behaviour, and some do exhibit other specific learning and/or emotional needs. Our centre is charged with providing education for the most ‘complex’ of these pupils from across the city. This description is shorthand for children who demonstrate the most extreme behaviours.
As a result of this we cater for groups of no more than 6 pupils, and a teaching assistant is almost always present. We operate a ‘secondary model’, with pupils moving classes for different subjects.
Last Tuesday evening I began writing notes about the events of the day:
The first taxi arrives. I position myself by the door as a gaggle of four excitable boys lurch and scrabble noisily across the car park. “Good morning!” I shout, and then, “Please walk!” as the boys barge in. Accompanying them to the reception area, I try to ensure that they hand all personal belongings in.
The half an hour-or-so of social time until lessons start passes quietly. More pupils arrive; some of the kids play cards and some make Lego models.
Time now for 15 minutes silent reading time (at least in theory).
“I can’t find my reading book!” yells one boy. “Yeah, nor me!” pipes another, without even looking for it. Another boy begins bouncing a ping-pong ball up to the ceiling and chasing it around the hall.
“I ain’t doing another audio book, you get me?” shouts Ryan – a level 1 non-reader – to no-one in particular. After several minutes of this, most pupils are rounded up by staff and ushered to their allotted rooms.
At 9.07am I’m anxious to get my small group to read for at least a few minutes before beginning my English lesson at 9.15.
Darren has sat compliantly in his allocated seat and he is (at least appearing to be) reading his book. Another pupil , Mark, arrives in the room triumphantly brandishing a copy of a ‘Harry Potter’ book. Both boys are, however, distracted by Luke who has managed to grab another pupil’s record sheet and is refusing to hand it in. As my allocated teaching assistant is assisting with a noisy incident I can hear escalating next door, and mindful that incidents can quickly lead to physical conflict with this particular pupil, I call for back up from one of our deputy heads. After much to-ing and fro-ing and wandering around the room, Luke eventually relents and allows me to take the sheet from him.
I begin the planned lesson – a continuation of the SATs revision work that we had begun last week. Mark begins working, but it is clear that Luke has other ideas, and his relentless comments are having a catastrophic effect on Darren, in particular. “I can’t do this, I can’t do SATs, and I don’t get why I have to?” he says. I explain that almost all pupils are entered for SATs, and outline the reasons. I also add that no pupil would be entered unless we knew they were capable. Darren goes into a sulky, ‘silent mode’ and props his reading book up, shield-style. In the meantime, Luke is refusing to even look at the work that is set.
…at this point the TA that is scheduled to support my lesson appears, looking suitably flustered.
“Sorry, some trouble next door” he mouths, out of vision of the pupils.
“Be wherever you are most needed”, I mouth back.
“Luke”, I say, “Please open your booklet, follow it with me and I’ll read the text”
“No,” he says.
“I ain’t doing it either,” mumbles Darren from behind his reading book…
…”you can’t make us,” adds Luke, with annoying astuteness…
…And that is the whole, entire crux of the issue.
He was correct: I couldn’t make him. What I could do is remove his break-time, talk to his mother (who says all the right things – but has heard it all before). The reality is, that most of these pupils -even at their young age – believe they have the system sussed. In fact, I could continue in this vein for several thousand words, citing several similar incidences just from that one day. On Tuesday, a lot of our pupils struggled with the simplest of instructions and many rules were flouted. It all reached something of a crescendo for me when I found myself encouraging a boy not to crawl around the floor screaming while one of our deputies showed another pupil (and his parents!) around the centre.
But what conclusions can be reached from all this?
I must stress here that a number of our pupils do have specific underlying reasons for their conduct and actions. However, the more time I spend in this role, the more I’m becoming convinced that a proportion of the behaviour we see is as a result of a perceived shift in power. This academic year, in particular, I have felt that certain pupils really believe that they are more powerful than the teachers and other staff that they are, ostensibly, in the charge of. These pupils are, after all, at the more extreme end of the market. They are excluded from school, know most of the tricks, and the threat of exclusion no longer applies. Also, – sometimes usefully for them – they have often had a label such as ADHD, Dyslexia or Autism applied. This they can then wield, like a shrunken head, whenever an authority figure challenges their conduct (“I can’t help it, I’ve got ADHD and I forgot my medication, right?!” etc).
Even in mainstream school, whilst the vast majority of pupils do behave, there are still a sizeable number that don’t – not to mention the inevitable assorted hangers-on that they attract.
In fact, as we know, this number doesn’t even have to be sizeable to cause the complete destruction of lessons and create havoc in corridors and dining-halls. It’s a bit like saying that it was only a small match that caused the fire, or only a tiny leak that led to the flood. It really doesn’t take many pupils to destroy the atmosphere and ethos of an entire school.
That’s why it’s so important that schools exert every effort possible to make watertight their behaviour management procedures and fireproof their systems and rules.
I strongly believe that it is in everyone’s interest that schools never lose sight of the fact that adults (teachers, lunchtime supervisors, teaching assistants – whoever it may be) are in charge.
Yes, of course we want to encourage independent-thinkers who know their own mind and can see what’s fair and unfair. Absolutely, we like individuality and self-expression. But when you are a minor, in a classroom, corridor, dining hall, or anywhere on school grounds, you must be compliant and obedient. Only then can you and your fellow students learn without risk of anything causing irreparable damage to that opportunity.
I worry that obedience and compliance are sometimes viewed as the unsavoury characteristics of a school environment; an over-stringent means of controlling the minds and behaviour of young people and the fostering of an oppressive regime.
I think the opposite is actually the case: In well-ordered and disciplined environs, disorder, bullying, fear and ‘hard work is uncool’ attitudes are much less likely to dominate. Therefore, pupils are far more likely to develop positive attitudes to learning and fulfil their potential, both personally and academically. This is especially vital if children don’t have appropriate boundaries outside of school. It is not our place to be an extension of pupils’ home lives.
I accept that my views may be somewhat skewed by my PRU background, but I see and hear enough to know that we certainly do have some problems at the moment. The first step to dealing with them may just be to consistently remind ourselves, and our pupils, who’s in charge.
(*All names changed)
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