How play tames the little terrors

The Oaks Pupil Referral Unit, which takes children as young as five, won an 'Ofsted Oscar' this week for the quality of its teaching. Sarah Cassidy reports
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The Independent Online

A tiny unit that uses play, cake-baking and imagination to work with the youngest children with the worst behaviour has been praised as one of the best schools in the country by Ofsted inspectors. Pupil referral units have often had a bad press, but The Oaks Pupil Referral Unit in Amersham,Buckinghamshire, is one of just 350 schools singled out for an "Ofsted Oscar" in the chief inspector's annual report published this week.

The Oaks is unusual in that it works with primary school children as young as five whose behaviour is so bad that it already threatens to get them excluded from school. Children whose emotional and behavioural difficulties have seen them swear, hurl equipment or have tantrums in class can come to The Oaks for a day a week to learn the skills needed to stay in school and to help them cope with life.

The Oaks was praised by Ofsted inspectors for its success at teaching five-to 11-year-olds to socialise with their classmates through play while improving their literacy and numeracy. Inspectors lauded the quality and excellence of the teaching, the behaviour of the pupils and the leadership of the head, Olive Harrison, who has been at the unit for eight years.

Mrs Harrison is particularly delighted that the Ofsted inspectors appreciated the importance of play at the unit, which takes up to 24 children from 65 feeder primary schools. "I believe that play is a big educator," she says. "We employ a classroom assistant who specialises in play and enables play to be a meaningful learning experience.

"This is expensive but there is no question that the cost to society would be far greater if these children were allowed to continue with their behaviour and were allowed to fail."

Much of the unit's time is spent on innovative ways of improving children's literacy and numeracy. The unit follows the literacy hour but uses the time to cover personal and social issues, while cake baking can promote maths skills.

"We are trying to develop children's emotional intelligence," Mrs Harrison says. "Lots of our children have had huge losses in their lives. Our literacy lessons are all about relationships, loss, change and learning to get on with others."

The Oaks' pupils come from all social classes. "We have children from very moneyed, high-achieving families through to children from very deprived backgrounds. But they have things in common that result in them becoming disruptive in school. They are often intelligent children with complex needs who are underachieving at school."

By September, the Government has promised to provide all children with a full-time education if they are expelled or they just cannot cope in mainstream school.

Mrs Harrison is worried that this could shift the focus away from early intervention work. "If we were flooded with permanently excluded children we would be unable to do the work we are doing now and that would be regrettable," she argues. "We prefer early intervention because the damage to a child's self-esteem occurs very quickly when things start to come unstuck.

"Working with mainstream colleagues and other professionals creates the type of support that gives the children and their families the best chance to succeed.

"I worry that PRUs will become sin bins, somewhere children are sent with little chance of re-integration and future success in mainstream education. These children need to learn to manage in the real world and to become good citizens. The Government can create units that are lovely environments but it is essential that we ensure that children are equipped as well as possible to succeed in the wider world."

Time at The Oaks is not an easy option for children with behavioural problems. It is really intense, she says. "People might think children just come along and have a lovely time. They may have fun but this is linked to hard work and a great deal of hard thinking about their behaviour and feelings. As Ofsted says 'Our success results in children better able to function in and out of school'."