Last-chance lessons for the kids from the 'pru'

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They are known as the kids from the "pru'' – not the insurance company but the pupil referral units that are springing up around the country to act as an educational last resort for thousands of youngsters expelled from their schools.

They are known as the kids from the "pru'' – not the insurance company but the pupil referral units that are springing up around the country to act as an educational last resort for thousands of youngsters expelled from their schools.

By September, the Government has promised to provide all children with a full-time education if they are excluded from school or are school phobics; truanting because of bullying fears or because they just cannot cope in a crowded secondary school.

Already, 1,000 "prus'' – or "sin bins" as they were formerly known – have opened with another 50 coming on stream this year. Ministers believe they must provide full-time education for the 8,000 or so youngsters excluded every year to prevent them running the risk of becoming a Home Office juvenile crime statistic.

In Southampton, which is being seen by the Department for Education and Skills as a model for other local education authorities, the revolution in teaching excluded youngsters has already happened.

Four years ago, when the city took control of the education service from its bigger predecessor, Hampshire County Council, more than 300 youngsters were receiving what was euphemistically described as "home tuition" – five hours' teaching a week for those excluded from school.

"All the home tutors had to do, though, was knock on the door and – if they weren't in – that was it,'' said Dawn Harris, head of the city's pupil support service. Now a network of pupil referral units has been set up catering for 120 children of secondary school age, a mixture of those who have been expelled and those who are truants.

Take Caroline Cole. She was on anti-depressants and hardly ever attended her secondary school. Now she is in her second year at a "pru'', is taking GCSEs and is planning to go to college."If you'd talked to me a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have been able to say anything – I would have just mumbled,'' she said. "I was a social phobic. I couldn't go into a McDonald's and order a burger, for instance, but this place has helped me hugely.

"I really didn't like it at school. I had bullying problems there and it just wasn't like a friendly place. It was an all-girls school and I didn't feel right. I despised it. I had bad attendance since year five (when she was nine).

"It's brilliant here. It's changed me so much. The teachers are more understanding. They have more time for you. Before I was in the unit I took antidepressants and was seeing a psychiatrist. Now I don't any more. That says it all."

Caroline is in a special unit for pupils aged 14 to 16 who are approaching their GCSEs. Ms Harris describes it as an "élite pru''. Most of the youngsters will stay in it until they finish their exams. Four years ago not a single pupil in a Southampton pru took a GCSE. Now 60 per cent do, many obtaining top A to C grades. The others either leave with vocational qualifications or a certificate to tell any future employer what they are capable of doing.

Caroline's "pru'' is exceptional, though. It is attached to a college and the youngsters at it have some of their lessons there to pave the way for starting full-time courses.

For the most part the "prus'' are geared up to try to instil better behaviour patterns into pupils so they can return to mainstream schooling. That is what Adrian Green hopes to do. Aged 14, he was excluded from his school after hitting a teacher. "The teachers didn't really give you a chance," he said. "If you got into trouble once, you were just branded a troublemaker.

"My behaviour has become a lot better. Staff at these schools are far better. They know when you're going to lose your temper or throw a mad one and they just calm you down. They've taught me you can control your anger."

Youngsters such as Adrian are set behaviour targets and once they have reached 75 per cent of them they can be considered for a return to mainstream schooling. It doesn't always work. Sometimes the move back can trigger another onset of behaviour problems but Peter Lewis, head of children's and young people's services for the city, said: "We expect the vast majority of 11 to 14-year-olds to return to schools."

Rob Gilroy is manager of a "pru" that specialises in vocational courses and work experience for those aged 14 to 16 and also has a special unit for pregnant schoolgirls and school-age mothers. He said: "We obviously have smaller classes. We have the opportunity to get to know the kids well. We have more time to respond to their concerns and act upon them. If it doesn't work, we may have to do something different – like a one-to-one programme with a teacher with a view to reintegrating them into the unit. They are not abandoned."

Mr Lewis is adamant the "prus" are not a soft option. "It is different, it is hard work, it is disciplined and it is structured."

One thing is certain, though: the new regime of the "prus" is vastly different from the previous system. Staff at the Southampton support service now negotiate with schools to send pupils at risk of exclusion into the units before the crunch comes. Because of that approach, exclusions have fallen by about 80 per cent. The troublemakers are out of school but they are still learning – thanks to the men and women who teach at the "pru''.