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Big classes? I love 'em

Small groups are the norm in pupil referral units. But they do more harm than good, says George Mitchell

It is widely accepted that the optimum teacher-pupil ratio for pupil referral units is about 1:6. But small classes are detrimental to the aim of restoring pupils to mainstream schooling.

Some people are scared of large groups of young people, and resort to divide and rule to manage their behaviour. The easiest way to do this is by restricting class sizes, but large classes are the norm in the mainstream.

The goal of most, but not all, excluded pupils and their parents is reintegration, but to reintegrate a permanently excluded child you must overcome at least two difficulties. First, headteachers do not want children from pupil referral units; second, and in consequence, these young people can become even more difficult, as they realise they are not wanted, and have nothing to aim for. Furthermore, by concentrating them together, the potential for anarchy is multiplied, unless you steer very hard in the opposite direction.

Pupils are not referred to our unit because they have behavioural difficulties or special needs; the sole criterion is that they have been permanently excluded from a mainstream secondary school. We are an ordinary school in microcosm. Six teachers, one teaching assistant, and one admin officer provide an education for a roll of 20, so the cost per pupil is high. While the staffing appears to be generous, it is nevertheless difficult to devise a timetable with a broad curriculum for the prescribed 25 hours per week. Temporary appointments and inconsistent curriculum strengths make the situation more complicated. In the current timetable, everyone is required to teach a wide range of subjects, and there are pinchpoints where, twice a week, someone has to teach all the pupils at the same time. Inevitably, that task falls to me. The subject is science, which is not my area of expertise.

PRU teachers usually prefer pupils to sit round a table in one group, This encourages less formal, closer relationships (the mantra of a PRU), but is a risky strategy as numbers increase. So when I started teaching science to my large groups, I put the desks in rows, and stood at the front of the class, a position of authority I had not assumed for over 20 years. I said those things I do not usually say: "Eyes this way." "Face the front." "Open your books." "Write the date." "Write the title." "Copy from the board."

"Do this exercise."

A few weeks into the term, we signed up for an online curriculum on the interactive whiteboard. It was visual and dramatic, and I rediscovered an enthusiasm for the subject. I am not sure I could now manage without these resources, and the lessons have remained comprehension exercises, dressed up as science.

Do the pupils learn as much in these lessons, as they would in smaller classes? No. Are all the pupils engaged? No: the bigger the class, the more they can hide. Is something important occurring? Yes: I am attempting to "normalise" our pupils by offering a context that resembles the one they will encounter when (or if) they return to mainstream education. It is an opportunity to be less tolerant and to shrink the boundaries of acceptable classroom behaviour. So far, I have taught classes of up to 13, but one day, when there is no one bunking, and no one excluded for drugs or throwing food, I may have all 20. In PRU-land, this is heresy.

Larger classes test the social skills that are necessary for success in mainstream education, and beyond. If we do not occasionally expose our pupils to ordinary classroom expectations, how will we ever prepare them to return?

George Mitchell is headteacher of a PRU in Waltham Forest, London

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