Living in the sin bin

Special units that deal with difficult schoolchildren are not the brutal institutions you might think. By Penny Fox
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The Independent Culture
If your child refuses to go to school - any school - what can you do? Or if they're excluded, expelled for an offence that you may tolerate at home but which the school regards as heinous? Among the 13,000 or so children permanently excluded from school each year are those who come from, as one parent observed, "the nicest of homes". Middle-class families can find themselves in an educational nightmare that they never anticipated.

One solution they may be offered is the PRU - Pupil Referral Unit. Still suffering from their 1970s image of "sin bins", they are regarded by parents as the last resort, the place where all the kids go when no-one else wants them. And who wants that for their children? The experience of two families belies that reputation.

Tym Ratcliffe is Headteacher of the Francis Barber Pupil Referral Unit in Wandsworth, south London. Around half of the 110 secondary-age pupils who attend have been excluded from school, but the majority of the remainder have been chronic non-attenders and left of their own accord. The standard offer at Francis Barber is a core curriculum of three half-day sessions; some pupils receive more, others less, with the majority staying for an average of two to three terms. Any fears that visitors may have of roving teenage delinquents are dispelled in the atmosphere of this small, clean, two-building unit. All is calm and welcoming, though Ratcliffe observes that there are sometimes "flare ups".

There are, Ratcliffe observes, a stack of reasons why children don't want to go to school:

"There is a significant group who find the whole experience of school so overwhelming, so intimidating and with pressures too difficult to deal with that the only way to escape those is to vote with their feet. They just don't go. One major reason for children not wanting to be at school is because it's not safe for them to be there."

As one parent commented: "For people like us - middle class professionals - there is a black hole that you fall into because the local authorities think your child will be all right. What really breaks my heart is that, if we'd been informed, he could have gone to Francis Barber at a much earlier stage and his education might have been a very different picture."

"We had to carry him screaming into the school"

Jane Pike, a business development manager, and her husband Tom, an architect, have two children; 16-year-old Bayly is the younger. Bayly is intelligent and articulate but has a slight paralysis on the left-hand side of his body, one of the effects of which is that he has learning difficulties similar to dyslexia. He is also highly anxious. Bayly coped well with school until he was about seven years old when, Jane says, he became "school phobic":

"Tom and I had to carry him, literally screaming, into the school. It was the most heartbreaking thing in my life, every day this screaming and crying.

"We tried a little private school with very small classes. It was a great success, but fiendishly expensive, and it broke Tom and I to send him there. But when he was 11 we had to find something equivalent in a secondary school."

The Pikes then tried a weekly boarding school. After just over one term, Bayly refused to go. This was followed by quite a long period of private tutoring before he went to a state school for "delicate" children:

"But it was full of very tough, often quite emotionally disturbed children, very alien to anything Bayly had come across before, in huge contrast to the private school. It was hard for him and he got very scared. After a couple of terms he said he couldn't go back, he just snapped."

A local private school was the next attempt but the strict discipline was too stressful for Bayly. He lasted for about a term:

"By now he was 14. We decided to get a private tutor. After a year, she suggested that if Bayly was going to do GCSEs, he needed to be attached to some educational organisation and she suggested Francis Barber. Bayly was appalled. He thought some of the children who had been at the "delicate" school would be there. But Francis Barber said he could go there when there were no other pupils around, and that slowly built up. Now he goes during school hours, completely under his own steam.

"I went to have a look and really liked it; it smelt nice, not like a school. I thought it would be full of children with a bad history, that it's the last resort. But it's been wonderful and Bayly's happy. He's worried about his future but he's got more confident and has more self- esteem and a feeling of optimism. Bayly was never excluded from school; he excluded himself."

"Whenever somebody mentions school it sends shivers down my spine"

"I think I was bullied by my teacher in junior school and then, towards the end of it, by the other kids in the class," says Bayly Pike. "The kids doing it made me sad but I was more affected by her doing it. She was just horrible.

"I went to a boarding school but I couldn't handle the boarding and didn't go after a while. I didn't learn anything at the special school. It had a lot of rough boys, they were into burglary and drugs, crime. I absolutely despised it, hated it, but because I'd caused so many problems for my parents, I stayed for as long as I possibly could.

"The private tutor rescued me really. Whenever somebody mentions the word `school' it sends shivers down my spine, but she suggested Francis Barber and we would drive down and sit outside it for a while and then go home again. Another day, one of the teachers would come outside and give me work to do. It was a big step to go in.

"I thought it would be full of the people who had fallen out of the special school. There are one or two people from there, and it's horrible to see them. I have felt frightened but not very often. It doesn't feel like a school: they're not really telling you to do this, they ask whether you want to do it or not. It says a lot for the pupils that they do go. I want to go on to college or university; I've been out of the conventional thing for ages and I'd like to try it."

"I had expected to find teacher-stabbers"

Angela Robinson was a teacher for more than 20 years. Aged 50, she has three children, one of whom, William, was expelled from school in February for possession of a small piece of marijuana on school premises. This happened four months before he was due to take his GCSEs.

He had been failing to attend school regularly since his father's death in an accident in 1995 which, Angela says, resulted in William becoming very withdrawn.

"It's quite ironic that I, who was involved for so long with education, should have a child who was expelled from school. I think William was expelled partly because, since his father's death, he had truanted so much and missed so much work that they didn't think he would get very good grades, so they wanted him out. I tried to get him a place in other schools but he refused the places offered. He felt he couldn't cope, could not go into another institution.

"A teaching colleague told me about Francis Barber. I thought it was not quite the sort of place where I would have wanted my son to go, but by this time I was at my wit's end and I thought it would be at least a useful place for him to sit the exams.

"I had reservations about the sort of children that would be there. I hate to say this, but I had expected to find the `socially disadvantaged' there, where manners and learning were lacking on all levels, and that among them would be some teacher-stabbers.

"A lot of my friends are teachers and, inevitably, what they chat about are the horrendous activities that have occurred in class: the kids that won't sit down, the kid that swore violently at them, the kid that chucked the seats around. I thought they would all be at Francis Barber so I viewed it in the most negative way possible.

"The reality was so different that I'm embarrassed about my original thoughts. Even as a teacher, it had never entered my head that if there was a child who wouldn't go anywhere else, he might want to go there."

William initially refused to go: "I pleaded and cajoled, tried on every level to get him to go out of the door but he wouldn't. The teacher visited us a couple of times and eventually William went in, he knew there was someone there he was capable of relating to and he's been going regularly ever since. I don't have to remind him, he actually goes of his own accord - and he arrives. He'd been going to school for years but never arriving."

"I got a lot of stress off the teachers"

"When I was at school, my predicted marks weren't very good at all and I should be able to do much better here, " says William Robinson. "It's more-or-less one-to-one tuition, but it's sometimes with other people. You're just left to get on with it really. I've also got an English tutor and an Art tutor at home, which helps. My mum pays for them.

"I don't think going full-time would be as good, I don't think I would be up for that. I had a lot of trouble from school, I was often late and absent quite a lot. I got behind with my coursework and they don't really like that very much.

"I thought it might be quite rough here, but I gave it a go and it's really all right. There aren't so many people about; at school there are loads of people.

"At school, I was being given a test every term. I got a lot of stress off the teachers, and some of them were really out of order. There was a lot of pressure on me. I'm glad I left there."