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Cliffs bring pupils back from the edge

A pupil referral unit in Yorkshire has won praise for its teaching methods. Sarah Cassidy reports on what impressed the inspectors

It's not often that a pupil referral unit is singled out for praise for its serene atmosphere and the children's impeccable behaviour.

But a recent Office for Standards in Education inspection described Westfields Pupil Referral Unit, in Batley, Kirklees, as "redefining standards for PRUs in England and Wales".

The unit has reintegrated more than 200 excluded and disaffected pupils into mainstream schools since it opened in September 1994. It has a 78 per cent success rate - calculated on the number of pupils who not only go back to school but who manage to stay there successfully until their GCSEs.

Much of Westfields' work is based around an energetic outdoor education programme which takes pupils with severe behavioural difficulties and dangles them from high peaks and plunges them down potholes.

Outdoor co-ordinator Graham Mollard said: "There's nothing like taking them into a situation where they feel there is major risk for increasing their learning curve.

"A lot of values are learned through the outdoors. They find their personal strengths and learn to use the strengths of others to support their weaknesses."

Much of the national curriculum can also be taught around the outdoor programme. Children, disenchanted with mainstream schoolwork, often find more enthusiasm for English assignments describing hair-raising escapades or mathematical calculations which could preserve life and limb.

"Our caving expeditions have sparked research into cave formation. They learn mechanics from lessons about climbing ropes and pulleys and grid references and points of the compass are part of the maths syllabus," said Mr Mollard, who previously ran activities for manager training schemes.

Westfields' six week re-integration programme takes two classes of up to seven children aged 11 to 14. Some have been excluded but their place at another school depends on them attending Westfields. Others have been referred by their own schools as a last ditch attempt to tackle their bad behaviour before resorting to exclusion.

Headteacher Joan Normington attributes much of the unit's success to its clarity of purpose. "We know why we are here and accept that we can't be all things to all people. We take disaffected children from years seven to nine and in six weeks teach them to survive in mainstream school.

"The problem with a lot of PRUs is that they are expected to take all excluded pupils with a variety of problems and not do anything but keep them out of everyone's hair.

"Our programme succeeds because no-one is allowed to stay on beyond the six to eight weeks. They must learn that school is the best place for kids and that absolutely everyone goes back."

Such is the unit's success that a pilot project for year 10 pupils investigating how the national curriculum can be varied to help disaffected pupils is to be extended with support from the children's charity Barnardo's.

The project students do not take GCSEs but follow individual education plans sampling vocational college courses such as motorcycle maintenance, animal care and IT, doing work experience and running community events.

"Many of the pupils are just better suited to the world of work. After doing work experience, one boy was inundated with offers because he's one of life's hard workers although he was in trouble at school," said Mrs Normington.

While all pupils cited their outdoor exploits as the best thing about the PRU, all recognised that they had been given a chance to reconsider their behaviour.

Patrick Price, aged 14, who is in the middle of the reintegration course said: "Here the classes are small so you get lots of help with your work. No-one is naughty here. It's given me a better chance at doing well at my next school and having a fresh start."

Mrs Normington added: "We tell all our new arrivals that they are down at the bottom of a well with nowhere to go. We are putting a ladder down for them and it is up to them - they can grab it or set fire to it."

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