Typically, when things go wrong during my day – when the IT systems pack up, when the work that’s been set makes no sense or when the kids do that irritating humming thing – I grit my teeth and visualise the monstrous glass of wine I’ll be drinking when I get home.
Recently though, when things go sideways I’ve found myself rubbing my hands and thinking: “Ooh, this will be good for the next column.”
That’s the only reason I can think of for why when the 7.30am call came through the other morning with the offer of a day’s work at a Pupil Referral Unit, I said yes.
PRUs are the places we send our children when they don’t fit into mainstream schooling. And the figures suggest we’re sending more and more children to them as the number of fixed-term exclusions rises. Having spent over 20 years working in secondary schools, I thought I knew all about PRUs – they were the places the kids we couldn’t handle disappeared to, to everybody’s great relief. It never occurred to me to wonder what happened to them once they were there.
When I arrive just after 8am, the office manager hands me a lanyard with my ID, keen to point out that it detaches if pulled. She also congratulates me on my decision not to wear a tie (I never wear a tie). As we head to the staffroom I'm told to ensure every door locks behind me, otherwise, the students will sneak through and do a runner. I watch as the first arrivals are swept with a metal-detecting wand before they’re allowed into the building. I’m starting to get a picture of what’s ahead. So much so that I consider turning around and heading home. But I guess someone’s got to be here, so I make the decision to see it through. That’s when I’m informed that the teacher I’m covering wasn’t in a position to leave any work for the day; I got the feeling it was best not to ask why.
With no work to teach and everyone checked for offensive weapons, the bell rings and lessons begin.
If you’ve never worked in a PRU, you’ll need a little imagination to picture the scene. Because although all the usual elements of a classroom are there, teacher, students, desks, whiteboard and so on, things don’t work in quite the same way. Imagine putting all the most disruptive students you’ve had over your career into one room. The kids who, for whatever reason, simply can’t function around others, and that this inability to function manifests itself as either aggressive hyperactivity with a full range of verbal and physical outbursts, or as debilitating anxiety creating an equally wide range of dysfunctional behaviours entirely unsuited to a classroom setting. On the plus side, I only have eight students in the class.
Or at least there were only supposed to be eight. Despite the door-locking protocol, students appear to have free rein of the building. Consequently, the number in the class goes up and down. Some students can’t get out fast enough, slipping away the moment my back’s turned, while others, presumably escapees from elsewhere, seem desperate to get into the room. That didn’t even make sense. Were they trying to stay in or get out?
The continuous swearing quickly fades to background noise. The sporadic fighting is harder to ignore, and I need to intervene in case someone gets hurt. I’m all too aware that might very possibly be me. The kids who aren’t throwing things, trying to dismantle the furniture or leaping on top of each other, are literally trying to make themselves invisible. Two girls head straight for a floor to ceiling stationery cupboard in the corner and refuse to come out. A large boy who looks like he’d fit in just fine with the ones punching each other hides under my desk. It doesn’t take an educational psychologist to recognise signs of complex underlying issues.
It’s immediately obvious to an outsider that, while they may be in the same class, the only thing that unites these kids is that none of them have been able to handle school. Having them thrown in together isn’t much of a solution when what they clearly need is one-on-one attention from skilled professionals.
The day is spent interceding in one argument after another and preventing things from being stolen or destroyed. During the occasional lull in the chaos, being a dedicated cover teacher, I try to get the students to do some work, but when the worksheets are torn to shreds the moment they’ve left my hands, and the pens are immediately repurposed as missiles, I accept defeat.
There are a few moments of relative calm, and I have a chance to chat with one quiet, polite boy about Minecraft. He seems so out of place it’s hard to understand how he might have ended up here. I sense he feels the same way.
Of the surprising things I learned that day, one was that staff in PRUs get no extra pay and that PRUs have a higher than average level of unqualified teachers. That’s not to say the staff I saw weren’t every bit as caring and dedicated as anywhere else, probably more so, but they were out of their depth trying to deal with a bewildering range of psychological problems. It’s little wonder that rates of staff absence in PRUs are around eight times those in mainstream schools. I was only there for a day, and while there are probably others in which things run very differently, I left with the overwhelming sense that this was a system that wasn’t doing anyone in it much good.
In the staffroom at the end of day I looked down and noticed my hands were stained red and for a second, I thought it was blood. It wasn't, it was board marker. But it was very much that kind of day.
The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job