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Hard work no trouble if kindness is on tap

Two 15-year-old students at the Francis Barber pupil referral unit in Tooting, south London, are having an English lesson. They sit at adjacent computers with their teacher, Vera, between them to stop them drawing on each other. Billy is writing his CV but prefers to play with his phone. He finally agrees to type in an address if Vera writes the next line for him.

The "work experience" slot is blank so Vera suggests putting down his required community service. "That was work - or it was supposed to be," she says.

Janey has finished and is looking up horoscopes on the BBC website. She reads them out to Vera, pausing on a few words but getting "recklessness" on the third attempt. Vera is impressed. "I don't care where she's reading from as long as it's reading," she says.

Swear words slip out constantly, but Vera picks them up: "You know I'm a granny - my ears are too old for that kind of language."

Janey and Billy have both been permanently excluded from their schools.

Janey can be charming but is explosive when she "brews over". Billy smokes a lot of dope and is very hard to motivate, although teachers say he is bright.

They are getting 1:2 attention because they are among the more difficult students at Francis Barber. The usual teacher-pupil ratio is 1:6. This gives staff time to deal with behaviour, as well as education, and provides what for many is the satisfaction of the job.

"You can deal with the whole person," says headteacher Tym Ratcliffe, who admits that his favourite class when working in mainstream schools was 5F on a Friday afternoon.

"It gives you the ability to create relationships with children. To use a buzzword, it's what personalised learning should be about." It seems to be working for Tebo, an angel-faced 13-year-old wandering around at breaktime with a Pot Noodle. He claims he was unfairly expelled from his school after a group of boys "rushed" a teacher. "She got hit in the face and I got blamed for it," he says. But he quite likes being at Francis Barber. "It's all right, actually," he says. "They give us harder work, but it is easier to do because they are kind."

Some names have been changed

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