James's mum speaks slowly, her words tinged with disbelief. "James has expressed a wish," she tells Grahame Robson, "to go to sixth-form college in Brighton. He's never wanted to go on to anywhere, ever." Like many of the children at the Marle Place pupil referral unit in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, James was bullied in his mainstream schools to the point where he became an isolated and introverted non-attender.
Mr Robson, who runs the PRU, has noticed another change in James. "Has he mentioned Joel to you?" he asks. "He's a new boy and he's been off sick for a few days. James asked where he was and said he was missing him." Such personal breakthroughs are the stuff of life here, where fragile children come to be made stronger and sent back into the world. It's a new approach to non-attendance on medical and emotional grounds which offers the education and protection of the home tuition service alongside vital social development.
Most PRUs cater for excluded pupils and those with behavioural problems. Marle Place is for the quieter end: those who stop going because they can't cope for a variety of medical, social and emotional reasons. Such children are usually taught by home tutors provided by the local education authority.
Mr Robson came up with the idea for Marle Place when a staffing crisis forced West Sussex to put all its excluded pupils into the Crawley PRU, leaving the one at Burgess Hill empty. "PRUs are dealing with some difficult excluded kids," he says. "But there is a forgotten client group - kids who are absenting themselves on an individual basis. Excluded kids are high profile, but those who have been victims of bullying and are terrified of going to school don't hang around on street corners and throw bricks. They are easily forgotten.
"Large numbers drop out of the system. Home tuition often means just the EducationAct basic provision of five hours a week.
"There was no pressure from the LEA to start a medical unit. It was something I wanted to do. I wrote a three-page paper on how it might work, how we could improve the service while cutting costs by about 20 per cent. I sent it to the LEA in Chichester and they gave me the go-ahead. We opened full-time in January 2000. It's been one of those rare projects where you can please all the people all the time."
It takes a special sort to work with these children. "We are teachers," says Mr Robson. "We are not health professionals, social workers or counsellors. Some of these kids tell you things which break your heart, but it's important to show you empathise while remaining professional."Mr Robson worked with low-ability children in mainstream schools before spending 10 years in the education unit of a social services home. He then managed West Sussex PRUs at Crawley and Burgess Hill. His teaching staff, predominantly female, is drawn from the home tuition team.
Children at Marle Place have a variety of problems - chronic fatigue syndrome; eating disorders; developmental dyspraxia; school phobia; panic attacks; chronic anxiety; depression; unplanned pregnancy; post-abortion difficulties; post-traumatic stress disorder; Asperger'sautism; stress; compulsive obsessive disorder - which means they need the sort of individual attention secondary school can't provide.
With around one in five children of school age deemed to have special needs, according to official figures, many schools are under enormous pressure to cope. Unless those children are statemented the school receives no extra money to deal with them. Mr Robson says: "Children who are taught by the tuition service get fewer hours, and the isolation of being stuck at home all day is damaging to their development. These children have lost their optimism and feeling of self-worth. They have no confidence in their ability to cope, and see themselves as failures. They have no vision of the future as being different. The family suffers. Coming here makes them realise there is an alternative. In this job, you see whole families coming out of the dark."
What the children, aged between 11 and 16, come into is about as far removed from a modern secondary school as is educationally possible. Marle Place is an old house, with small, higgledy-piggledy rooms and non-institutional decor. Groups of two to five children work on their five basic GCSE subjects. They have at least 12-and-a-half hours' tuition a week. The school can take 40 pupils and has around one teacher to every five pupils. The staff have specialisms but expect to teach three or four subjects. The aim is not to replace home tuition.
"For most kids, finding things difficult and stressful is part of growing up, and most manage it," says Mr Robson, "but some drop off the bottom. We have to get them to the stage where we can get them back into the mainstream. That can take up to two years. The aim is to get them back into the system in time to start key stage 4. If they're still here at Christmas in Year 10, they stay here for GCSEs. We had 11 GCSE pupils last year. They all got further education places and nine are still there."
The unit has been so successful that the LEA is considering spreading the word through a national conference for those in the home tuition service and in PRUs. Back at Marle Place, James looks forward to doing art and photography at sixth-form college and hopes Joel will soon be back. His mother is amazed. Both are coming out of the dark.
Those interested in attending a conference on new ways of teaching non-attenders, email: firstname.lastname@example.org