John was a very tall boy. At 15, he was already over six foot and looked bigger because he had a huge Afro hairstyle crammed into his grey hood. He walked into my literacy class last year with an aggressive swagger, shouting rap slogans – furious that I wouldn’t let him smoke.
As we got to know each other better, his behaviour calmed down and he talked a little about himself. He was born somewhere in the Sudan. When he was 11, his relatives had put him on a plane bound for England. He thought he had an uncle here but had not been able to find him. After days wandering round the airport he ended up in a council care home and was enrolled at the local secondary school. He missed his parents, brothers and sisters. He kept a pet praying mantis which he brought in to show everyone.
All went well until he started getting into fights with fellow pupils. After he started throwing chairs at teachers, he was sent to our pupil referral unit for a month. The other students in the class were a pretty, precocious blonde girl – arms covered in tattoos – who chewed nicotine-stained fingers. She worked in her mum’s pub half the week and so was often absent. She told me she had been excluded because she had bitten a teacher and torn a girl’s hair out (“for being disrespectful”). Her dad was in prison.
There was also a boy mad about pit bull terriers and another one always asleep (they were both excluded for smoking and dealing drugs in their school playgrounds). I liked these kids. They had terrible difficulties concentrating on anything but were fun and sometimes showed real kindness to each other and to me.
They were all very behind in their reading, writing and basic maths skills – forget about history, geography or current affairs. Most came to school late in the morning. At the beginning of term, after lunch, a few would come back high from smoking cannabis. This made some noisy and others just completely “spaced out”. Although each one had an individual daily report to fill out, with a record of classes attended and work completed, progress for many was slow going. With just a year to go before they were due to leave school I feared for their future.
Since I began working in the pupil referral units ( PRUs) I’ve taught at several centres. Some are purpose-built, clean and brightly decorated. One is in a community centre, where the children work in a room next door to a pensioners’ bingo club. Another is in the corner of a listed building. Most pupils tell me they prefer these places because they are quiet and peaceful. They also enjoy the individual attention.
One grim temporary centre I worked in was on the third floor of an old Victorian building, scheduled for demolition. We worked in high-ceiling classrooms with two teaching staff to three or four children.
Bizarrely, in the lunch break we all sat together in a hall and I was surprised to see a boy about 13 years old, straight out of Harry Potter, in blazer and tie and carrying a satchel. When I asked him why he was there, he said he hadn’t been excluded. His family had just moved to the area and there wasn’t room for him in the local secondary school.
“They told me they’ll find a place for me next term, but in the meantime I’m coming here so I don’t fall behind.” he said.
It felt symptomatic of an education system stretched to breaking point.
Another feature I found disturbing was the number of supply teachers in PRUs. If children are only staying for a term perhaps they don’t notice the high staff turnover, but it must increase the stresses on permanent staff.
I also wonder whether putting all children with behavioural problems together in one place is the best way of dealing with them. Peer pressure is extremely formative for any young person. The shared stigma of being excluded along with friends from your estate, and the shared animosity towards authority, must be a stronger influence than any encouragement to learn from a wellmeaning stranger.
I have nothing but admiration for teachers and teaching assistants working in these centres. Coping in volatile situations they have to use the skills of social worker, psychiatric nurse, improvisation artist and counsellor in addition to their teaching duties. And sometimes, just sometimes, there are success stories.
Recently I was walking through a market when I heard someone shout my name. I turned round and saw John. He was working on a stall selling pet food. He looked in good shape, his hair was cut and he’d gained some weight. It turned out that he had found his uncle and is now living with him and working in the family business. He’s also doing a part-time mechanics course at an adult education college. “You remember my praying mantis?” he said. “I’ve got six now. They are a family.” Thousands of children were excluded from schools in England last summer. Government figures for 2003, released this July, revealed that 280 were permanently expelled for assaults on adults, while 4,000 were put on “fixed period” suspensions from one day to a term in length. For attacks on other pupils, there were 336 permanent expulsions and 12,800 suspensions. The other main reason for exclusion is drug dealing and using. Twenty per cent of children were expelled more than once. London has the highest exclusion rate.
The statistics, from the Department of Education and Skills, are the first of their kind and officials say they probably understate the problem as not all LEAs complete their forms. Most of those excluded (80 per cent) were boys and the most common age for first exclusions was 13 or 14 – the third year of secondary school.
Since schoolboy Luke Walmesley was murdered by a 16-year-old fellow pupil, the NASUWT teachers’union has repeated its call for random weapons searches in schools. They have also appealed for a national database to assess the scale of the problem. Members in more than 40 schools have refused to teach violent pupils.
A spokesperson for the DfES said that although the figures seemed large, they represented less than 1 per cent of the total school population.
Advocates for children and parents say they often see another side of the statistics.
They say disabled children, mentally ill children and some minority ethnic groups are more likely to be excluded, and that certain schools exclude more readily than others.
Speaking at a conference last year Martin Ward of the Secondary Heads Association said the worst-affected schools were likely to be areas with high unemployment, disaffected broken families and many single parents.
He warned: “Sadly, schools in these areas have to be aware that they have a significant number of children who are likely to fly off the handle.” Besides disrupting a class, a difficult child will not achieve great academic results. With the pressure on schools to perform well the temptation to exclude a pupil, who can only drag down standards, must be high.
Once a child has been excluded, the statistics suggest that most fail to get a full education, and up to a tenth simply drop out of the education system altogether.
A DfES 2004 report said that a few excluded children were taught at home and some signed up for courses at further education colleges. But the largest number of pupils excluded were sent to pupil referral units. Around 67 new centres were opened around the country in 2002 and more are planned.
They all follow the basic statutory syllabus in literacy, numeracy and other subjects, but classes are much smaller, so teachers are able to give pupils more personal attention. PRUs also draw on support from educational psychologists and social workers.
There are no Catholic pupil referral centres, and so in theory if a child is excluded from a Catholic school he or she will be provided for by the local authority.
Yet I wasn’t able to find any published figures for exclusions from Catholic schools. A spokesman for the DfES said he thought there might be fewer exclusions from faith schools in general – an important reversal of the trend in rising exclusions.
“Faith schools are not immune from problems by any means,” the spokesman explained, “but they may have more pastoral support from members of the local church or mosque.” Bishop George Stack, Chairman of Westminster Diocese’s Department for Education and Formation, agreed. He insisted the onus was on Catholic schools to teach all children, irrespective of ability or temperament: “I would expect our schools to provide a safe and secure environment for all our pupils – even the disruptive ones,” he said.
“My own experience has been that they attempt this to the utmost of their ability.”