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Boisterous boys settle for peace and quiet

GOLDEN Hill pupil-referral unit does not seem like a place peopled by disruptive pupils. Light, bright and airy, it is noticeably peaceful.

But the 30 pupils who tumble out of taxis every morning are here because they have been disturbing the peace of their schools. They have come from any one of 240 schools in south Lancashire. Most are from poor backgrounds, more than half are from one-parent families and all have emotional andor behavioural difficulties, often leading to under-achievement. Half have a statement of special educational needs or are being assessed for one. Nearly all are boys and all but one are white.

With patient persistence, Golden Hill set about changing behaviour. There is space and resources to help them: a pupil-teacher ratio of 5:1 and plentiful support staff. The aptly named Tony McSpirit, a former policeman and now caretaker, is a further asset.

But the real secret lies in the constant, friendly attention - and in lively subject-teaching fired by high expectations. Behaviour points, allocated for each session, are totted up at the end of the day. If a child gets 60 or more out of 65, he can choose how to spend the last 20 minutes of the day, from a range of options including football and computers. This reliance on incentives is phased out as children are prepared for a return to school.

Parents are closely involved via a "three-way diary". Staff often help them set "home" targets, such as bedtimes.

The difference is usually visible within days. Parents who have only ever been told their child is "appalling" are amazed to be told he is getting on with work or playing with another child. They can see it for themselves, from an observation room next to the classroom for the youngest children.

The Office for Standards in Education report rightly speaks of the unit's "calm and settled atmosphere". At lunch, children ask permission to leave the table and help each other clear away. Those who interrupt are told to wait until a conversation is finished.

At the daily lunchtime meeting staff and pupils sit in a circle and discuss "complaints". Who kicked whom in the taxi and why? What are the children involved going to do about it? Pupils learn to speak up, own up, negotiate, apologise - in public - so that any niggles or disagreements are cleared up.

However, it is not always so calm. About one day in five, something will go wrong. Animosity will flare up between two children, a boy will kick, bite or spit at another pupil or member of staff. The "peace places" where children go to calm down will resound to the thumps and wails of an angry child: "I HATE him!", "I CAN'T write!" On the whole, however, the unit is a noticeably peaceful place, with none of the bustle of the large classes which can make it so difficult for fragile children to concentrate. No wonder many are reluctant to leave.

Mrs Parr and her "excellent team of teachers" (OFSTED) have a high rate of success. Last year, 11 pupils were returned to school and only two of them found their way back to the unit.

PUPIL REFERRAL UNIT FACTS

* Golden Hill is one of eight pupil-referral units (PRUs) for primary pupils in Lancashire and the only one providing full-time education

* There are around 308 PRUs across the country and there should be more than 360 by September 2002, when the Government has promised that all excluded pupils will get a full-time education

* The number of pupils excluded has stabilised after a drop from 12,700 in 1997 to 8,300 last year, but a growing proportion is of primary age

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