The last chance saloons

In Halifax teachers are threatening a strike over 60 pupils. Elsewhere `sinbins' are seen as a solution. David Cohen spends a day with the kids no one else will teach
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The Independent Online
Danielle yawns. James farts. Leanne and Christine (who is heavily adorned with lipstick, eyeshadow and earrings) stare at their desks. Mark (who got drunk and vomited all over his previous headmaster's office) arranges himself horizontally over two chairs, plonks his feet on the desk and stuffs his mouth with chocolate. So begins the third lesson of the day for Class C, a group of 15-year-olds receiving their education at Trinity Education Centre, a Pupil Referral Unit in Trowbridge, west Wiltshire.

"Mark, can you take your feet off the desk please?" asks Ann Kirkland, the English teacher, handing him a piece of comprehension and getting the lesson under way. Mark - head shaven and built like a prop forward - gives her a withering look. She backs off and begins reading: "The mystery of the Mary Celeste, a true story about a ship discovered in the middle of the Atlantic ocean with no-one aboard."

The following discussion takes place:

Ann (to class): "What do you think happened to the crew?"

Mark: (burps) "Ask brainbox ... " (grunts)

Ann: "I'm asking all of you."

Mark: "I reckon they was kidnapped." (sticks another chocolate bar in his mouth)

Ann: "By whom?"

James (opening and closing his lever-arch file with loud snaps): "Aliens."

Mark: "Shut up. Doesn't hold water you dozy sod."

Ann: "What does it mean to say an explanation doesn't hold water?"

Mark: "Bull-crap. Load of rubbish."

Ann: "Another way of putting it is that it doesn't make sense."

Mark: "Ann, you clever woman! I'm sticking with kidnapped."

Ann (unruffled): "BY whom?"

Mark: "Pirates." (pauses) "Naah, if it was pirates they'd have nicked the booze."

Ann: "Very good. Now you're thinking Mark!"

Mark stands and noisily re-arranges the chocolates in his pockets.

Leanne (glowering at Mark): "Shut up!"

Mark (showing her his fist): "What you gonna do about it, you breeze- block?"

For the next 15 minutes, all the students except Mark complete the written part of the exercise. Suddenly Mark pushes his desk. "Got to pack up Ann. See you later," he announces.

"You're not going yet, there's still a few minutes to go," insists Ann.

"Stop me." The whole class rise and exit, leaving Ann protesting in mid- sentence. "Wheeew!" she sighs audibly. "That was one of my better lessons. Mark was pretty good, listening, participating and lasting as long as he did. And he only ate one or two sweets." She says it all without a trace of irony.

When Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) - so-called "sinbins" catering for disaffected five- to 16-year-olds - were set up three years ago, they were regarded as highly controversial. Now, with permanent exclusions up by 300 per cent to more than 11,000 students, PRU's are at the heart of a government education policy obsessed with weeding out badly behaved pupils and improving discipline.

Yesterday the Queen's Speech formalised this trend, announcing details of Gillian Shephard's Education Bill which places a duty on each and every local education authority (LEA) to draw up and publish a plan for dealing with disruptive and excluded pupils. The result is likely to be an increase in the number of PRUs from the present 318 units run by 94 LEAs as the 25 remaining LEAs clamour to formalise their response. Furthermore, additional discipline measures to be announced giving schools the power to exclude pupils for 45 days in a year rather than the current 15 days a term, and allowing schools to refuse students whose parents refuse to sign home- school contracts, is expected to further increase the pressure for places at existing PRUs.

At Trinity Education Centre PRU in west Wiltshire, for example, referrals are up by 50 per cent to 300 students in the past 12 months. But many pupils are turned away because the unit has insufficient resources to take them. Space constraints mean that corridors double as classrooms. Present facilities are already so stretched that they cannot provide more than a half-day education to most students. Moreover, at a time when funds are needed to expand, they face cuts of 20 per cent off their 1997 budget.

"It's a joke," says Marilyn Coombs, headteacher of Trinity Education Centre PRU. "The government are acknowledging the increased role to be played by PRUs but they are not prepared to provide the funds to allow us to do our job effectively." Part of the problem, admits Ms Coombs, is that PRUs have a bad image and this translates into a lower public spending priority and a lack of funds. The general reputation of PRUs is that they are regimented boot camps charged with the task of administering short, sharp shocks to young criminals, in other words "sinbins" for the trash of society where the hard nuts can be dumped out of sight and out of mind.

"Such views do an injustice to these children, most of whom come from difficult homes and are themselves vulnerable," says Coombs. "What's more, PRUs offer on-site or home tuition to a whole range of children, including pregnant and nursing school girls, children unable to attend mainstream school for medical reasons, phobic children who cannot cope with classrooms, and excluded and disaffected children, the latter comprising less than half the total pupils."

That said, most of the pupils taught on-site at the west Wiltshire PRU are there because they have been, or were about to be, excluded. Most are from lower-middle and working-class families. The involvement of the PRU with these students is meant to be temporary, returning them after a maximum of two terms back to their mainstream school as reformed characters where hopefully they remain.

But how do PRUs go about their task of transforming emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children into social functioning citizens?

Ms Coombs, the 42-year-old headteacher, has been punched, bitten and dragged by the hair across the floor by her students. She wears black tights to cover up her bruises from being kicked, yet she defends her students to the hilt and explains her philosophy as follows: "These children arrive angry and sometimes their anger has to come out before they can move on," she says. "Part of my job is to draw that anger out and make sure it doesn't erupt on other teachers, pupils or property. Some people disagree with this approach, but I believe that in order for them to move on, you have to draw them out and when you do, anything can happen - they may cry, break down, scream, lash out. But no matter what happens, we make them know that we care about them and like them and once you've connected you have a chance to motivate them to change their habits."

But finding something, anything, to like about their pupils can be a challenge, admits Jon Ridler, Class C's geography teacher. "They can be horrible people and I really have to work at it. Take Mark. Phooarr! When he arrived last year, he was violent, aggressive, unco-operative, foul mouthed - every word a swear word, calling Ms Coombs a `f---ing whore'. He couldn't read at all. We had to start him on readers for six-year-olds. To get him to sit down for five minutes was an achievement. He, like most of our children, came from a background of total failure. Our job is to build self-esteem, and to do that, we may have to start at very low levels."

Ms Coombs makes it her business to visit the home of every new pupil in order "to pick up vibes" of their family life. One boy, she discovered, has a father who beats him up, who himself was beaten by his father and who relates to women by ordering them about. A girl had a mother with a psychological disorder that she refuses to be treated. She wasn't allowed to take friends home and "couldn't cope with her mother's obsessions without developing one of her own - bulimia". Another girl had a mother who has had relationships with various men, none of whom her daughter has liked. She is now in care and is predictably "quite hopeless at relationships, constantly misreading people and attacking them for looking in her direction".

Against this background of domestic and social disintegration, how do you measure the success of the PRU?

"With the junior school children, success means sending them back to mainstream schools and we achieve that in 80 per cent of cases," says Ms Coombs. "With the year 10 and 11 students, you get them too late and their behaviour will never be acceptable to return them to regular schools. We prepare them for GCSEs and if they emerge with values as to what is right and wrong, a qualification of sorts, are able to function socially, hold down a job, keep washed and clean and out of trouble, that, too, is success. Mark is a success story. He used to shout, now he talks. He's not violent and he hardly swears any more." Ms Coombs tracks leavers for two years. Of last year's group 80 per cent went on to college and 70 per cent of those are still there. A minority of students have been in trouble with the law; none are in jail. That is success.

Government underfunding of PRUs is a false economy. It costs a modest pounds 3,614 to give a child one year and a last throw of the dice at the west Wiltshire PRU, a bargain compared with the cost to the state of thousands of pounds per week if the system fails and they end up in jail.

Finally, what do the students think about being sent to the PRU last chance saloon?

"This school, I love it," enthuses Leanne. "It's got a laid-back atmosphere and everyone has been through similar stuff to me. I feel understood. Mark's a good friend. He just likes to show off." Mark drags his feet off the desk, grunts and smiles sheepishly. "Yeh, I like it here. It's better than any other school I've been to. I have my off days, but they've made me feel better about myself since I got here."

"Oi, lend me 50p?" interrupts Leanne.

"Naaah," goes Mark.

"C'mon, I'll give it back."

"Christ, your brain ain't tickin' over today, inn'it? Dozy sod."

And they leave to catch their transport home. n